Monday, March 8, 2010

Weekly Hurriyet Column: Turkey’s long-forgotten women

Below is the unedited version of my column for this week. You can read the final version at the Daily News website. No cheesy references this time around as well; I just decided to repeat the long-forgotten theme. BTW, although I am posting it three days after Women's Day, the article itself appeared on that day; not by design, but by coincidence: My weekly columned just happened to be on March 8...

As for the article, a commentator to the Hurriyet website noted that if women are choosing to look after their children, they should not be labeled unemployed. Well, they are not; they are then "not in the labor force". But this brings an important point; let me repeat my answer to that comment here: If the government were providing childcare (or payment for childcare), then some of these women would be able to go work. Not all of them would, and that is fine, but at least, they'd have the freedom to choose. By not providing alternatives (or making alternatives too costly), the government is in effect forcing them to stay out of the labor force. When you compare labor force participation rates for women across the globe, Turkey comes out at the bottom. Is that because Turkish mothers love their children more than their Scandinavian counterparts? Or is because the Scandinavian mothers get cash to pay for daycare? I have just given one example, but I guess you can see my reasoning...

Anyway, on to the article:

In this country, we tend to pick flashy numbers over subtle details in the shadows.

For example, when the Turkish Statistical Institute released the 2009 unemployment figures, all the papers were quick to note that the country, at 14 percent, had the second highest unemployment rate in the OECD. But that headline figure hides the huge gender gap in the labor market.

Overall unemployment rates, 12.9 percent for men and 13.5 percent for women (all numbers in the article are from the latest employment statistics, from November), hide the ugly truth about women’s employment.

For one thing, out of the 6 million women employed, one third work as unpaid family workers, almost all in farms. In fact, three fourths of the 2.5 million women in agriculture are unpaid family workers. The summary statistics hide this implicit unemployment.

Moreover, the duration of unemployment is higher for women than for men. Out of the 942,000 women unemployed, one third have been so for more than a year, with the same ratio being one fourth for men.

Of course, it is possible to paint this picture a bit rosier. For example, you could argue that, in addition to the official figure of 6 million, there are 3.5 million unregistered women workers. But of those, 2 million are unpaid family workers, again mostly in agriculture. I am also not sure if the large unregistered workforce, a major problem of Turkish labor that seems to be an even bigger issue with women, is reason to rejoice.

And if you are going to start massaging the numbers, you should also take into consideration Turkey’s public sector employment of 3 million. Although I could not find separate numbers by gender, it is safe to assume that a sizable sum of the 6 million is employed by the state, inflating their employment statistics much more than their male counterparts.

But the real story of women’s labor force in Turkey is not with women with or looking for work, but those not in the labor force. Labor force participation rates, the ratio of labor force to population over 15 years old, are 70 percent for men, but only 26 percent for women despite the significant increase over the past couple of years, which is probably due to an unemployed husband effect more than anything else.

Similarly, employment rates, the ratio of employed to population over 15 years old, 62 percent for men, but only 23 percent for women, tell the same story. In effect, Turkey is utilizing just one fourth of half of its labor force.

Going a bit deeper points to interesting geographical and educational patterns: While less than one fifth of women with primary education or below participate in the labor force, the same ratio is 71 percent for those with a college degree or above.

In terms of unemployment, women with a high school degree, more than one of fourth of whom are unemployed, feel the most pain. Unemployment rates are in single digits for women with primary education and below, mostly because these women do not join the labor force in the first place.

These descriptive statistics seem to hint at a lot complexities in women’s labor force participation and unemployment. That’s why positive separatism for women in the labor force, as suggested most recently by TUSIAD, will not amount to being more than a temporary patch so long as the real reasons are not addressed.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s gender gap is not specific to the labor force. In Word Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap report, which takes into consideration women’s educational attainment and political empowerment as well, Turkey managed to come in sixth from last out of 134 countries.

I am not sure if there is much reason to be in high spirits, but Happy Women’s Day, anyway...

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