Turkey experienced tremendous economic growth over​ the last two decades, but the number of women taking part in the market is still the lowest among OECD members. How would a higher number contribute to the economy and what are the obstacles?

In Turkey, from 1955 to 2018 the female labour force participation rate diminished from 72 percent to about 35 percent. It is the lowest rate among OECD countries whereas Turkey has had impressive economic growth over the past decade. 

One cannot help but imagine the scale of success Turkey might have achieved had a higher percentage of women been engaged in the economy. Considering the Turkish government’s ambitious Vision 2023 targets, this is an important concern for the future. Female labour force participation is an important driver (and outcome) of growth and development.

The most sustainable and perhaps simple way to draw more people into the Turkish labour force is by encouraging more women to join. Turkish men are more likely to work than women are, even after accounting for variables like education: in 2013, 63 percent of men with an educational background lower than high school were employed in Istanbul, while only 17 percent of women with the same educational background were.

Before attempting to draw more women in though, policymakers must consider influences that may be beyond the scope of the policy. For example, research shows that religion has an effect on female labour force participation. Curiously, however, a study showed that Turkey, a country in which study participants expressed less sexist and religious views when compared with study participants in countries like Iran and Iraq, had fewer women working than expected in comparison to them.

Something else is behind Turkey’s low female participation in the labour force, perhaps more nuanced than religious or sexist attitudes that may be what people instinctively think of.

According to this theory, there is a U-shaped female labour force participation function, which accounts for the impact of structural shifts in the economy. As the economy develops from a primarily agrarian to an industrial economy, many women drop out from the labour force as men take up most of the industrial jobs due to women not having the right skills as well as due to social stigma. 

With sustained development, women make educational gains and the value of their time in the market increases alongside the demand for them from growing service industries, hence the U-shape. Though not proven, this hypothesis has explained the pattern of female labour force participation in various countries. Turkey may also experience growth in female labour force participation as development continues, as there are signs that it did, but this remains to be seen.

Even if the simplest way to draw more people into the Turkish labour force is encouraging more women to join, solutions, in order to be effective, must prioritize population subgroups with the greatest potential to improve while utilising the least amount of resources. 

Here is what we know: more than 3 out of 4 Turks live in cities, and urban women are the most likely to be unemployed in Turkey.

Additionally, in many countries, the increase in female labour force participation was driven by a large and sustained increase in married women's labour force participation. A pregnant woman in Istanbul is 8 percent less likely to be working, and a woman with a child below the age of five is 6 percent less likely to be working compared to a married woman with no children. 

Even highly skilled urban women seem to continue to work during their first pregnancies, and stop once they give birth. For low skilled women in urban areas, having a child is associated with a reduction in probability of working by 8 percent compared to having no children. Motherhood, then, seems to be the most important factor when it comes to female labour force participation in Turkey – and a potential way forward.

Turkish policymakers should note that, across the world, public expenditure on childcare and family benefits is correlated with female labour force participation. The relationship is in fact causal, as results from a Canadian government childcare initiative show.

The Turkish government has worked to pave the way for more mothers to remain in the workforce by employing a number of financial instruments including maternity leave, public provision of childcare services and tax credits based on childcare expenses for wage earners. 

However, some government regulations – though well-intentioned – seem to not be based on evidence and appear to actually deter women from working, especially those from poorer households. 

For example, regulations imposed on private early childhood care provision may increase costs of provision, in particular, the outdoor space requirement originally imposed on private providers in the 1960s and has become more difficult to fulfil in densely populated districts of the city over time. Because of this regulation, according to an interview with leading expert Dr. Meltem Aran, the price of childcare services increases by 376 TL per child per month. More than 65 percent of poor urban women (who are also uneducated) state childcare to be the reason they do not work and regulations such as these that make childcare inaccessible to them, add to the problem.

Another example that limits access to childcare is offering 400 TL per month to grandmothers to take care of their grandchildren. However, this is only for grandmothers whose grandchildren have a mother that works part-time and not full-time, which may defeat the purpose.

Tweaking such regulations may be a small, yet effective, way to encourage more women into the labour force. This means potentially higher GDP per capita levels, and at the same time ensuring all families get access to high quality family benefits, known to have a positive long-ranging impact on children’s development. In other words, killing two birds with one stone.

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