Turkey: A Prominent Role on a Stage Set by History (Abstract)

Author(s): Patricia Kahn


Contrary to Western stereotypes, Turkey has a surprising proportion of women scientists. In one of the country's best universities,

  • One-third of the physicists and mathematicians are women.
  • Two-thirds of the chemists are women.
  • One-fifth of the engineers are women.
  • Two out of six deans are women.

Kahn writes that, "Overall, Turkey's professional work force has a higher proportion of women--especially in science and medicine--than most Western countries."

As Turkey's scientific base grows and forges closer ties to Europe and to its own government, and as the European Science Foundation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization increase fellowship and research grant money, women maintain their place in the sciences because of:

  • Strong support from the universities.
  • An educational system that keeps girls on track in science.
  • Easy access to child care and household help.

Unfortunately, since only 1% of Turkish women and 2% of Turkish men attend a university, these benefits are reaching only a tiny, privileged minority. Other citizens must struggle with a huge gender gap in illiteracy (twenty percent more females than males are illiterate) and prepare themselves for a life of menial labor.

Even within the scientific community, there is still room for improvement. Academic salaries are low and women do not often reach the top ranks. Kahn tells us that "The main obstacle isn't discrimination but forces that pervade society -- especially the strong tradition that defines home and family as a woman's domain, placing a double burden on working women that grows heavier as hours and responsibilities attendant to more senior positions increase."

An Equal Footing

As Turkey vigorously began to modernize and Westernize in 1923, women had more and more access to education and professional opportunities. A class bias that still exists today has meant that upper-class women more strongly encouraged to learn than middle- or lower-class men. During its nearly a half-century development, science in Turkey has never had the reputation of being an exclusively male domain.

The educational system also helps to develop young scientists. All students must take "intensive math and science courses throughout high school. At the end, a grueling 2-day exam provides the sole criterion for deciding not only what university a student can attend, but what field he or she can study." Competition for slots at the top is fierce, but the end result is that girls and boys are equally well-prepared in math and science.

Competing with Tradition

Since academia in Turkey traditionally carries with it a low salary, many men (raised under strong pressure to be the family breadwinner and provider) pass over research and opt for higher-paid careers in engineering and medicine. And though women make up 39% of the research assistants and 31% of the assistant professors in natural science, it is harder for them to reach the top ranks where they make up only 24% of full professors and 10% of all top university administrators. Some think that the siphoning off of talent may be due to lingering sexist attitudes among male colleagues. Biophysicist Feride Severcan notes that "women in top positions are under pressure. If you make a mistake in a high position, people associate it with your being a woman."

The expectations of, and pressure on women may be greater within society at large than in the scientific community. Turkish culture "strongly expects women to fulfill the traditional homemaker role." Sociologist Ferhunde Ozbay says this translates to the attitude that "it's fine to be professional as long as dinner is on the table." The conflict is usually not as pronounced during the first stages of a woman's career, but as job duties, hours, and expectations increase along with children's ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to balance both. Women are more likely than men to sacrifice a promotion for the family's sake, which "creates a discrimination which is very subtle but very strong," in the words of oncologist Emi Koen.

Values and Choices

Although the deeply internalized notion of home as women's responsibility is hard to dispel, it is true that as more young Turkish men delay marriage, they become accustomed to cooking and cleaning on their own. If they do marry they may have fewer taboos about entering the kitchen. Although more women are remaining single (at the top ranks, women are five times more likely to be unmarried than men), it is hoped that a new balance will soon be possible for those women who currently feel they are forced to choose between career and family.

--abstract by Juliet Midgley

Cite this page: "Turkey: A Prominent Role on a Stage Set by History (Abstract)" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/4/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Saturday, September 20, 2014 <www.onlineethics.org/Topics/Diversity/DiverseEssays/Abstracts/abstractsindex/turkey.aspx>