Turkey atypical in terms of strong presence of women in academia

Turkey atypical in terms of strong presence of women in academia

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Turkey atypical in terms of strong presence of women in academia A new global report has again put Turkey near the bottom of gender equality rankings, yet women maintain a prominent presence in academia that mirrors the situation in Western countries, according to an academic at Sabancı University.

“There is a higher presence of women in Turkey in disciplines which are traditionally male-dominated, even in the most developed countries,” said Sibel Irzık, an academic coordinator for Sabancı University Gender and Women’s Studies Forum, calling the situation “atypical.”

How did women’s presence in academia develop a century ago?

In 1914 during the Ottoman period, a women’s university was established. It started out first with some lectures at Istanbul University then quickly in the same year, it turned into a women’s university. Until that time, women were not allowed to enter any higher education institutions. This is actually a similar process to many other countries; women [in other parts of the world] were allowed into only a limited number of departments before they expanded their rights.

Where do we stand as far as other examples are concerned?

In the United States it seems women first entered in 1833. Countries like Austria, Finland and Switzerland are closer to our date. We are not that far behind the general average. What’s important is that this happened in Turkey with serious struggles on the part of women. A journal called “Women’s World” started a campaign saying, “We also pay educational taxes, and we must be able to make use of the right to all levels of education.”

When the university was first established, it was part of Istanbul University, and a separate building served women. It started with only 22 women and the departments that were available were mathematics, literature and natural sciences. When the Ottoman Empire [collapsed after World War I] and faced economic crisis, the government decided to close down the university and the rector was told that from that point on, women were supposed to attend classes with male students.

The rector resisted, saying we couldn’t imagine men and women sitting next to each other as “that was against Islam.” He designed a separate program for women to attend at different hours, but the women fought against this as well, saying they wanted the same quality of education. In 1921 co-education started throughout the university. The economic crisis came to the advantage of women.

As early as the 1920s, some women began to teach at the university. The first dean in a Turkish university was appointed in 1954 and the first rector of a university to be a woman was in 1974. All this knowledge is available in Meral Akkent’s exhibition, “Women’s 100 years in university.” Women’s presence in higher education gained impetus with the republic with both legal and social reforms as a whole, and I think there was a leap in the early decades in the 1930s and 1940s.

Fast-forward to today, what is the current situation?

The general picture is positive. The number of female students in university increased from 36 percent in 1983 to 48 percent in 2011. Between 1986 and 2000, the number of woman students in science departments was above the general average, while the increase in the number of female students in social sciences has been parallel to the general average. The number of female students in engineering sciences did not change much over the years. Generally speaking, we are not that different from developed countries.

How about the place of women in academia?

The picture is positive in terms of general numbers. In some way it is surprising because this puts us at the same level with the most developed countries and makes us an atypical case. One would expect Turkey to be close to other Middle Eastern countries; a little closer to Islamic countries or countries with comparable economic development. It is atypical especially economically and in some ways socially and politically, since Turkey has greater challenges than most Western countries.

According to data provided by the Council of Higher Education, in the last academic year of 2013/14, of the total of 133,000 academic staff in Turkish universities, 42 percent were women. In state universities, which account for the majority, this is 40 percent; in private foundation universities, this can go as high as 50 percent. The average for the EU is 38 percent; in more advanced countries like the U.K. or Norway, the average is 42 percent; in the U.S. it is 40 percent.

When we look at different academic disciplines, the numbers seem strikingly better than most European countries. Some 35 percent of academics in the medical sciences are women; in Germany this is 7 percent; the EU average is 17 percent. In engineering, the rate of female academics is around 20 to 24 percent while in Europe it is between 8 and 14 percent. There is a higher presence of women in Turkey in disciplines which are traditionally male-dominated, even in the most developed countries.
Q: Yet we are still far from saying that we have attained gender equality in academia.

When we look at some other details, this would not immediately translate into gender equality.

When we look at academic titles, only 25 percent of women are professors and 35 percent are associate professors. When you go lower, the percentages increase again. Obviously, women have trouble in advancing their academic careers or getting promoted to more advanced positions in their academic careers. The second sign is even more dramatic; among the total number of 184 universities (the number from last year), only 14 have female rectors – 8 percent. The ratio of woman deans is similar around 9 percent. This is more or less the case throughout the world again.

Let’s look at the positives; what separates academia from other fields, enabling women to record better progress?

This has not been studied sufficiently. It probably has historical and social reasons; the need for highly educated people especially in the early stages of the republic could provide an explanation. Class balances or other factors might have enabled middle-class and higher-class women to enter this field rather than lower-class men. There might have been some more positive encouragement in the field of education than other fields.

There is also probably a negative reason; usually in the world as well as in Turkey, when you see many women in a particular field, it is a sign that this field is not desirable and popular. In Turkey especially in terms of economic gains and perhaps general social respectability, the academic field is not as popular or attractive as some other fields, but academia in the rest of the world is more attractive than compared to Turkey; academics abroad are better paid and have more weight and perhaps that makes it harder for women there to get higher positions. Perhaps in Turkey there is less competition from men and thus greater room for women.

Also, many traditional ideas about women encourages work in an educational environment rather than an industrial environment.

Why is it they cannot advance their careers?

Probably even as academics, women are not equal to men in their private lives. Responsibilities like child raising, housework and taking care of older member of families fall upon the shoulders of women, which impacts on their ability to engage in more research, publish more and earn promotions even if there is no active or intentional discrimination in university administrations.

There are also glass ceilings; so in theory, the promotion to higher levels is open but there are hidden factors and invisible impediments to their advancements. In many cases, women have fewer role models and less confidence in themselves to apply for higher positions to press for promotions. In terms of academic publications or administrative positions, people don’t have role models, female mentors that will guide them through these processes.

In the light of current developments, what would you say for the future then?

There is a reason to be cautiously optimistic. Gender equality in academia is far from being achieved, but we are in a position that is comparable to the world that actually provides us with an opportunity to work with other countries and work with women’s organizations and feminist scholars to diagnose deeper problems and develop policies and address challenges. This is the purpose of the international symposium we are organizing. Other countries are much more experienced in developing policies and institutions within their universities to actively draw attention to the gender gap. Turkish universities have not institutionalized the process of gender equality.

It is important to tackle this issue because inequality and discrimination hurt more than just those who are disadvantaged and discriminated against. Gender inequality in academia is a waste of crucial, high-quality human resources. If all precautions are not taken so that teaching, research, and governance in universities are conducted by the best candidates for those jobs, so that all members of academia can develop and actualize their professional potentials to the fullest extent, students, scientific knowledge and society in general will suffer the consequences.

Who is Sibel Irzık ?


Sibel Irzık has a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and is currently teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı University.  She is the author of Deconstruction and the Politics of Criticism (Garland, 1990), the editor of Karnavaldan Romana (Ayrıntı, 2001), a selection from Bakhtin’s writings, and the co-editor of Relocating the Fault Lines: Turkey Beyond the East-West Divide (South Atlantic Quarterly, 2003), as well as Kadınlar Dile Düşünce (İletişim, 2004), a collection of articles on gender and literature. More recently, she has published articles on Orhan Pamuk, Yaşar Kemal, Latife Tekin and Turkish coup d’état novels. She has been the academic coordinator of Sabancı University’s Gender and Women’s Studies Forum since its establishment in 2010.