The size of the labor force is roughly the same in Turkey and South Korea: 25 million. Yet the populations differ enormously, with Turkey’s 73 million to 50 million in South Korea. We have a larger population but a smaller labor force. Why? The female labor force participation (FLFP) rate is around 50 percent in Korea while it is below 30 percent in Turkey. But the FLFP in Turkey is not only lower when compared to South Korea, it is also lower in comparison to many Muslim-majority countries as well, not to speak of Europe. For some reason women in Turkey, unlike their sisters in comparable environments, stay at home.
According to the recent TurkStat figures, Turkey has around 12.3 million housewives. That is markedly higher than the 8 million women in the labor force. Korea, in contrast, has 10.5 million economically active women. Let us get a bit deeper into the numbers: Last year, the number of Turkish women to declare themselves housewives in response to not being part of the labor force was around 11.7 million. This number increased to 12.3 million this year. So in early 2012, the number of housewives increased by around 500,000. Does that mean that women in Turkey prefer to make dolma and watch daytime television over a steady paycheck? I don’t think so. Compulsion, rather than preference, is at work here.
Now, one might be led to point to the low female education rate as the culprit here. What is curious in Turkey however, is that even the educated women prefer to stay at home. When compared with EU countries, the FLFP in Turkey is lower at every level of education. 16 percent of university-educated women in the EU do not participate in the work force, while the same figure is above 30 percent in Turkey. You can find a similar trend in both primary school and high school graduates. So, even among educated women, there is a stronger tendency to stay at home.
On the one hand this could simply be a cultural trend, and resolve itself over time; cultural in the sense that people in Turkey have not yet adjusted to the economic and social transformation still in progress. The U.S. was in Turkey’s present state in the early 1960s and Korea in the late 1980s. Turkey is trailing behind the U.S. and Korea in the FLFP, just as it is in per capita GDP. On the other hand, it may be time to start considering more flexible labor regulations. That is how the Koreans reached out to a larger work force. The rigidity of labor regulations in Turkey might thus go some way to explaining Turkey’s FLFP enigma.
I don’t really know how desperate those millions of housewives are to show up at offices and factories. As an economist however, I’m certainly desperate to see them there.