Why are women outside the labor market?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ankara University Political Sciences Faculty Member Gülay Toksöz[1] wrote for the book "Discrimination at Workplace and Fight Against Discrimination" compiled by Kaos GL: Why are women outside the labor market? An analysis on capitalism and patriarchy[2]

In the traditional sense of development, because women take on gender-based roles in the family such as giving birth, caretaking and being the raising-parent and not taking part in labor market, they are not considered to be producers. There is an assumption that with the increase in family prosperity due to economic growth, women’s status also advances. However, there is not always a direct correlation between an increase in family welfare and women’s sitution advancing. As long as women depend on husbands, serious tensions arise in the process of sharing resources and women and girls receive limited benefit from the family income. Women don’t get compensated for their services in the family, such as taking care of children, elderly and the ill as well as the effort they put in daily housework. This invisible labor is not only not appreciated, but it also poses as a block before women’s access to activities that bring income. This labor division which undervalues women’s labor and the notion that this division is natural, eternal and everlasting are the key ideologies that constitute the basis of patriarchy. Women’s uncompensated labor in family not only benefits family members, primarily father/husband, but also the capitalist economy. They function for the daily conservation of the family: Cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking care of children etc. reduce the costs of labor and fasten the saving process due to increased profit. In the absence of uncompensated labor, higher expenses will be needed to keep the same life standards of the family, as this affects the profit/spending ratio.

When women do enter the labor market, the rules of this market forces women into disadvantaged positions for their reproductive activities. Women’s care-taking responsibilities causes women to be present in labour market discontinuously and partially, which is then used to justify the down-market and low-paying jobs women are given. Women taking on low-paying jobs due to gender-based labor divison perpetuates men’s hegemony over women, while women’s house-related responsibilities perpetuates their low status in labor market. Low payment, less rights and less access to advancing in career for women protect the basis of patriarchal system. Women’s weak status in labor market perpetuate their conditions in the family. The lack of access women have to work options that bring income and the lack of access they have to well-paying jobs make it difficult for women to turn run from abusive relationships. The contract between capitalism and patriarchy benefits highly from the unequal structure of the labor market and the secondary status of women in it.

Women’s Labor During Industrialization

Industrialization, the major axis of economic growth, has a great impact on labor demand and labor markets. When we look at in what forms industrialization has affected women’s employment, we will see that there are major differences between countries. In developing countries, states have followed different paths which had different impacts on women’s labor. The ratio of women’s presence in labor and their place in employment are the results of a complex mixture of  macro-economic factors that determine labor supply and labor demand and the socio-cultural structures. Socio-cultural factors, meaning patriarchal structures, mentalities and practices in the family, society and state, block women’s access to education and employment opportunities and limits labor supply. The emergence of labor supply which will answers the demands of women’s labor force and women’s working conditions are directly linked to how the capitalist system runs in that country and the current stage of the capitalist growth model. The various articulation forms between capitalism and patriarchy bear different forms of joining the employment sector.

In the first phase of development strategies that focused on industrialization, states followed Import-Substitution Industrialization (ISI) whereas, in the second phase, they followed Export-Oriented Industrialization (EOI). During the Import-Substitution Industrialization era, women’s labor was generally not needed in various parts of the world. In the last quarter of the 20th century, as a result of developing countries, in particular those in Southeast Asia, shifting towards Export-Oriented Industrialization and development strategies, demand for women’s labor increased. From the perspective of companies that had to increase their costs in order to compete in international market, women are vital as they are seen as cheap labour for labor-intensive production.

Growth model based on Export-Oriented Industrialization followed different orbits in various developing regions and countries. Because the demand for women’s labor varied a lot, the ratios increased differently across the world, with Asia holding the highest ratio and Latin America the lowest (UN 1999:27, Joekes 1999). Countries in Southest Asia are shown as the most succesful models of export-oriented growth; there are still discussions on the factors that determined growth in this region. While there are different approaches with their focus various factors such as economical span, active role of facilitator state institutions, technical progress, investment in human capital and income equality; there is still an agreement on the positive role of export in accessing foreign technology. Here, feminist economists state that these approaches overlook the gender aspect of growth and the low income of women workers who work in export industries (Seguino 2000:51). What makes these countries competitive, increases export sales and contributes to the supplement of foreign currency that is needed for modern technologies is the low level of women’s income. Transition to Export-Oriented Industrialization has increased the demand for women’s cheap labor since the 1960s. However, in these countries where fast growth depends on cheap women’s labor, women’s bargaining power has been limited by the state-protected gender norms of patriarchy. The articulation of capitalism and patriarchy in East Asian countries was possible through the means of ensuring women depended on lower wages compared to their male counterparts.

Comparing women’s labor and participation in employment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with those of East and Southeast Asia, another study focused on high national income per capita and wage levels that were supported by oil revenues in MENA countries in the 60s and 70s (Karshenas and Moghadam 2001). According to them, during the transition era, restricting elements of traditional culture stand out in countries with high national income per capita in nonagricultural sectors. On the other hand, in countries with low national income per capita where men are the sole bread-winners and families don’t have enough income, new cultural norms that welcome women’s labor emerge.  In MENA countries, high national income resulted in the protection of conservative family structures and low women’s participation in employment as a consequence of men working but women getting kicked out of jobs that bring income. But countries like Morocco and Tunisia, who have no or little oil reserves, are exceptions to this as their Export-Oriented Industrialization led to more jobs for women in industries. In this economic context, Moghadam (2001) mentions a “patriarchal gender” contract in MENA countries according to which men run the family and women are responsible for household and caretaking responsibilities who, as a result, economically depend on men. This patriarchal gender contract system defines which jobs and professions are suitable for women in labor market. And this contract is systemized through laws, especially family laws. In MENA region, the articulation of patriarchy and capitalism is based on the exclusion of women from labor force.

These mentioned studies criticize approaches that focus only on “culture” and show how macro-economic factors in the region and limited industrialization have shaped women’s presence in labor. Even though Turkey has been named the most industrialized country in the region according to a comperative study that looks at economic growth and women’s employment in MENA countries, women’s low employment outside non-agricultural fields must be looked at from a context of limited industrialization (Moghadam 2003).

Industrialization Process in Turkey and Women in Labor Market

Turkey, a country with no oil resources, has similar results in women’s participation in labor force and employment rate with other countries in the MENA region. After the Import-Substitution Industrialization era in the 60s and 70s, Turkey has adapted Export-Oriented Industrialization strategy in the 80s; however, this has not resulted a considerable growth in women’s employment. One difference between Turkey and other MENA countries is that, with the establishment of the Republic in 1923, Turkey has embraced gender-sensitive legislations and regulations as part of its Westernization process. Additionally, with the EU negotiations already started, Turkey’s lgislations and institutional structures have started to be restructured to comply with the EU acquis. However, gender-sensitive laws do not always bring equality in employment and labor force. Equality depends on the methods of social growth and the type of welfare regime the state chooses. This means choosing a development strategy and building a ground for social caring services that forsee getting involved in the global markets by means of manufacturing products with high added value, seeing the increase in employment as a social target and making sure proper jobs are accessable for both women and men.

Today’s Turkey is way behind among world’s nations when it comes to gender equality. Some of the major reasons behind this are the lack of access women and girls have to education opportunities, their limited presence in employment and almost no representation in political decision-making mechanisms. In Turkey, women’s particiation in labor force is about 30%, which is not only very low. Until very recently, it rapidly fell; however, there is a little shift towards an increase since 2008.

When we look at the impacts of macro-economic politics on employment from a historical point of view, with the entry of capitalist labor relations and mechanization into agriculture in the 50s, we will see that subsistence farming has transformed and that the need for labor has fallen. This situation has impacted women’s situation too. The usage of women’s labor very much depends on tenure structures, the level of mechanization in agriculture, the type of products grown and the level of need of labor during production (Kandiyoti 1997a). Especially in places where grain is produced, the growing use of machines has sidelined the extra labor force and fastens the migration of populations to cities from rural areas as they could no longer affort life with decreased incomes. In cities, men became the sole bread-winners in the familes according to the family-based patriarchal power and women were expected to stay at home and take care of houseworks. In Turkey, since the second half of the 20th century, the increase of women in employment is linked to women getting excluded from agricultural processes. Additionally, in the production of cotton, tobacco, tea and whitebeet all of which are input value in manufacturing industries, women are not compensated in family-size companies or get the lowest compensation if they are paid farmers in landless families. However, in recent years, women’s labor has become more easily excluded compared to their male counterparts as part of the general decrease in agricultural production and employment rates caused by agricultural politics imposed by international financial institutions.

Benefiting from the extra labor of women which is excluded from agriculture in other sectors has been limited. During the Import-Substitution Industrialization era, women were used in specific jobs such as weaving and tobacco and their employment presence has never exceeded the 5:1 ratio. During this era, the effords to keep wages relatively higher with the goal of supporting domestic consumption and increasing purchasing power only perpetuated men remaining sole bread-winners and maintaining the patriarchal family structures.

Demand for Women’s Labor in Export-Based Industrialization

Transition to eport-based industrialization in the following era has not resulted in women getting employed in non-traditional roles or a considerable increase in their employment rate. This has a couple of reasons. There is a need for new investments that will pave the way for women entering the market and for a demand in women’s labor. However in Turkey, the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and the export-based industrialization model had too weak potential to increase employment depite the decrease in wages. There is a couple of reasons for this. Here we can draw the attention to how limited the investments (which are expected to increase employment rates) in the productive field are. As part of the SAPs, the activity fields of public economy has narrowed, public institutions have been privatized and the public fixed capital investments decreased. While the public fixed capital investments decreased, private sector investments did not increase which led to failing in the creation of demand for labour that would answer the increasing labour force in Turkey (Şenses 1990, 1996, Kepenek, Yentürk 2010).

In the meantime, with export-oriented industries having to compete on the international market, subcontractor and fason relationships have emerged to keep the costs low. Big companies who could not go into subterranean activities found the solution in using smaller companies for fason production of labor-intensive phases. Small companies who compete among each other to win the fason job reduce the costs by undeclared work. As a result, employment increases more in informal sectors and informal economic activities rather than formal sector. Due to economic pressure, underskilled women laborers are employed in undocumented positions both in industrial and service sectors. Therefore, the economic development model Turkey chose has not increased investments in producsion with high added value, increase in employment rates in proper jobs or the entrance of women into labor through secure and stable jobs.

Apart from low investment level, one other factor that jeopardizes the labor market in Turkey is demographic structure, which has an impact on low women visibility in employment. In parallel to the decrease in fertility rate, Turkey’s population is going down. However, according to population projections, Turkey’s adult population rate will continue to increase until 2041 (Hoşgör, Tansıt 2010: 69). What this means is a rapidly rising demand for labor force and high unemployment rates if enough job opportunities are not created. So far in Turkey, the growth speed of the working age population has been higher than that of employment opportunities. One of the reasons why this has not turned into mass unemployment is the exclusion of women and working age girls from labor market due to patriarchal control over the demand for their labor.

At this point, we have to underline that gender-based structure of the labor market, patriarchal mentalities and production organizations too have an impact on the demand for women’s labor. The patriarchal mentality that decides which jobs and sectors are suitable for women determine the attitudes of employers toward hiring women and limits women’s access to employment opportunities. The mentioned patriarchal mentality structure has an impact also on the personal choices of women with regard to the job fields they want. In Anatolian cities, industrial areas are filled with workplaces mainly for men and they are perceived to be only-men zones, which as a result creates the notion that industrial areas are not “suitable” workplaces for women. Employers favoring male labor is not only because of sexist mentality and behaviors. It is also related to big male labor supply in relation to demographic structure. And when we have male labor supply who is ready to work under any circumstance and in any kind of job, the demand for women’s labor remains low. Employers are also not willing to cover the costs that are related to women’s reproductive activities, such as pregnancy, maternity leave and child-care. Plus, as long as late working hours and shifts do not comply with women’s reproductive activities, employers avoid hiring women staff.

In countries where the demand for labor is high but labor supply is low, women’s participation in labor market is supported. Depending on the employers’ demand for labor and women’s organized struggle, there may be some fracturing in the attitude of the state who is the representative of public patriarchy. In conditions where the state develops public politics for care-services and where the demand for labor increases wages, patriarchal structures that keep women at home dissolve and women become the essential components of labour market (Walby 1996). However, in Turkey, the presence of a mass male population who is willing and ready to work under any condition, which makes this mass the core source of labor for employers, protects the sexist mentality and structures inside the labor market.

Finally, as a result, Turkey’s development model that is based on Export-Oriented Industrialization has failed to create enough job opportunities and left women’s employment ratio at low levels. The lack of demand for women’s labor has not forced capital to challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, they agreed on the exclusion of women from public space and the protection of gender-based labor division and patriarchal family structure.

Factors that Limit Women’s Labor Supply

As Kandiyoti gave as an example to classical patriarchy, the manhood claims of a man in an Anatolian village family depends on his ability to protect and take care of those who depend on him, mainly his wife and children. Men, as husbands and fathers, are considered to be in charge of their families’ safety, honor and dignity. Because women’s acts define men’s honor, women are expected to act in accordance with this. Women leaving the family borders due to migration from rural to urban areas comes with risks as women might jeopardize male authority and control by conducting “inappropriate” behaviors (Özyeğin 2004:101-103). To avoid this, patriarchal mentality denies girls from further education opportunities after primary education and blocks women’s entry into work life. In traditional and conservative circles where spatial male-female segregation and socialization between same-sex individuals based on religious views, educational institutions and workplaces that allow mixed (male and female) socialization create suspicion. Men who have to allow their women to work do not have a positive view on women sharing their workplace with other men as this poses a risk that might harm men’s honor (Kandiyoti 1997b, p.30-31). Women having their own income might shake men’s authority in family and may be seen as a threat that would weaken men’s hegemony over women which is why men would not be keen to allow women to work. This is why women working outside in jobs which bring money is accepted only in situations where the husbands fail to perform this responsibility, in only-women workplaces or when women can work from home.

There is no doubt this approach varies in rural / urban / metropol cities depending on the region; however, the participation of women in money-bringing jobs outside the house depend more on the decision of male relatives than women’s personal choices. In a study conducted in Istanbul in the 90s among unemployed women, 3 out of 4 women who were primary school graduates believed they needed a permission from their husbands to work. With the education level rising, this number fell; however, even among women who went to higher education, 1 out of 5 women believe they needed a permission from their husbands. In case the husbands did not give the permission they needed, 3 out of 4 said they would try to convince their husbands; in case they cannot convince them, 2 out of 3 said they would give up (Demirel et al. 1999, p.211-214). We see that marriage and labor division inside the house play a determining and limiting power on women’s participation in labour market.

There is no doubt that patriarchy went through certain fracturing throughout the 20th century. Also a powerful rise of women against patriarchy has emerged with a class perspective and new negotiation opportunities came up. In major cities, marriage means giving up on job for middle/upper class women from major cities who have benefited from education opportunities and work as specialists in a field.  The high-paying jobs they hold give them the chance to end unbearable marriages. However, when girls from lower classes cannot reach a high level education after primary or middle school, marriage and the housewife roles become an inevitable fate. While women participate in agricultural production as unpaid family workers regardless of their education level, educate women are excluded from labor market in urban places. If they are in a position to work for economic other reasons such as men not being able to sustain their families, most of the jobs they are able to find are in small workshop type production industries or in service sector with low-paying, low-skilled and undocumented positions. The level of wage at such jobs do not give women the opportunity to object to hegemonic relationships and male authority at home.

Relationship Between Education and Labor Supply

One of the characteristics of the population in Turkey is the low level of education and skills. Social class, gender and  ethnicity are three factors that have an impact on the low levels; and together, they aggravate women’s situation. When looked from a gender point of view, women’s access to school and education level are lower than that of men. When looked at from a social class and poverty point of view, we see a direct correlation between participation in education and the income of the family, in other words the level of its prosperity. In families with the lowest prosperity and welfare, 35% of men and 60% women either never went to school or never finished primary school. The ratio of people who have highschool or above education is 6% among men and 2% among women (HÜNEE 2008:23-25).

Poverty is a strong factor in the lack of access children have to education. Not being able to go to school is higher in rural areas (compared to urban centers) and East and Southeast Anatolia compared to other regions (Kavan, Ergen 2007, aktaran ERG 2008:32). According to the testimonies of parents, one of the primary causes of not going to school is the high costs of school expenses (Şahabettinoğlu et al., 1999). However, according to these testimonies, this problem is mentioned more often in the case of young girls compared to boys which tell us that the allocation of resources are to the detriment of girls in families with little means. Other factors are girls having to help with housework and take care of siblings and not getting permission from families. This shows that sexist labor division and patriarchal mentality pose major blocks before women’s access to social opportunities since their childhood. Kalaycıoğlu and Toprak’s study (2004) shows that 70% of students who continue to university come from families in the top 20% income group. Girls from poor families have almost no access to education which leads to their exlusion from labor market and transfer of women’s poverty to the next generations.

The low level of women’s education plays a role in the low level of women’s labor supply. While men participate in labor market across the country regardless of their education level, there is a direct correlation between women’s education level and their participation in labor market. Women’s low level of education limits their presence in labour; their presence is only around the number of highly educated men in the job market. Low level education has a limiting impact on women’s labor supply. According to İlkkaracan (2010), the high presence of well educated women in labor market has to do with their opportunity keep work away from family; and the relatively higher salaries they receive allow them have access to house and child-care services. At their formal sector workplaces, they also benefit from laws that offer rights during pregnancy and maternity and they reach retirement. Women with lower education, on the other hand, work in informal jobs with relatively less income which means they do not have access to similar services or rights.

As a result of leo-liberal policies that impose cuts in public spending, Turkey does not invest in education/teaching as much as needed. This causes serious problems in the quality of education at all levels. It also weakens the ability of education to promote the social mobility of children from low-income groups and to contibute to social justice. This situation works mainly against the daughters of poor families. The fact that the state fails to develop comprehensive policies to overcome social injustices and the gender gap perpetuates the protection of patriarchy.

The Deficit in Care-Services  

The inefficient –or nonexistent, to be more precise- child and elderly care services play a major role in urban women not offering their labor to the market or, even if they do, having to leave the market after some time. Especially for women in low-skilled and low-paying jobs, there are no public service institutions that help women which causes women to stay at home unless they are able to receive support from the older family members as a solution. According to Ecevit (2010), the family-centered management of child-care services is a serious threat for women’s employment. Ecevit also adds that for children between 0 and 3, there are almost no public care services; for children aged between 3-5, going to school is very low. This ratio gets higher mainly among children aged 6. Lately, there is an alarming decrease in the number of child-care services that are part of public institutions and serve people who work at these institutions. In the meantime, there is no information with regard to nursing rooms and child-care centers that are supposed to be opened in workplaces subject to Labor Law. This is a concrete indicator of how little the state cares about the issue and how families are left with the full responsibility of child-care.

Among women who work in rural areas and have kids under 6, every 3 out of 4 manage child-care either directly or with the support of older women in the family and other relatives. Only 1 out of 5 can affort a private care-taker or benefit from public care services (HÜNEE 2008). Those who can benefit from private or public services are rural women who work in high-paying jobs. Because the numbers and capacities of nursing and rehabilitation homes are very insufficient, women face many challenges; they either have to leave their jobs or, if they are in specialized jobs with high income, turn to migrant women labor employment. In gender-based labor division, because women are responsible for housework and care, they remain responsible for home-related tasks even if they work at jobs that bring income. Additionally, there are new regulations that promote women to continute their care activities at home. Public sector has withdrawn from its responsibilities for the care of the elderly and the ill; a limited part of the service is received from private sector istitutions which supports regulations/practices that encourage women in the family to undertake all the care-taking responsibilities.

The results of Turkish Statistical Institute’s Time Use Survey conducted in 2006 for the first time are striking. While unemployed women spend 5 hours and 43 minutes on the care of the family and the house, working women spend 4 hours and 3 minutes. Among men, this number is 1 hour and 12 minutes for unemployed men and 43 minutes for working men. Working women spend 5-6 fold more time on housework and care-taking compared to working men. As the results of a study conducted with women in undeclared jobs shows, men do not share the houseworks. Plus, their wives are allowed only as long as this does not hold them from fulfilling their responsibilities at home; therefore, instead of causing conflicts at home, women are forced to undertake an overload of tasks and responsibilities (Kümbetoğlu et al. 2012). This situation clearly explains why women who work in low-paying and heavy working conditions have to leave their jobs and decide to become housewives.

There is a lack of public institutions that offer care services and the state promotes women to undertake all family responsibilities instead of lifting some of the weight off from their shoulders by developing supportive social politics. All these are solid expressions of public patriarchy that supports gender-based labor division in society.

Public Policies Which Aim at Increasing Women’s Employment

All these developments show us that women’s labor and employment are directly linked to macro-economic politics and industrialization strategies. Development models which do not aim at creating jobs do not offer a human-centered development; on the contrary, they cause increase in unemployment and exclude women from labor market by protecting patriarchal structures and mechanisms. With regard to Turkey’s strategies to fight unemployment, there is a serious need to bring changes that are gender-sensitive into industrialization policies. There is a need for investment incentive policies that will promote the production of intermediate and investment goods inside the country. But since labor markets are shaped by gender dynamics, the results of state policies are not gender neutral, meaning effecting women and men equally. Policies that support durable consumer goods, such as the automobile sector, will mean supporting male employment since the sector is very male-dominated. There is a need to take special measures to ensure women enter sectors that are traditionally exclusive toward them. Of course, this type of employment should take place in the framework of system in which workers’ right are protected by legislations and that obstacles in front of freedom of organizations are removed.

At this point, we could briefly touch the topic around what the labor unions and the Confederations they belong do to increase women’s employment and eliminate gender inequality in employment. At unions, there are certain units that organize events for women members. But unions are going through a time where they are generally losing their members and power and their efforts are met with various forms of opression and pressure. During this period, it is not possible to say that unions are satisfactory in their efforts to win more women members, to solve their problems and to ensure more women representation in various organs. No one could argue that the only reason for this is the fact that women are in informal employment in small-sized companies and that it is linked to the general problems of informal job field. Men-centered mentality at unions does not see a problem with the under-representation of women workers or encourage women in this direction. As a part of this, during collective labor bargains, issues such as child-care center, nursing rooms etc. are overshadowed in discussions, or sometimes not even mentioned. And because women workers are not able to join trainings at a sufficient level, they are not informed or aware that collective labor bargains play a crucial role in resolving problems (Toksöz, Erdoğdu 1998).

Incentive policies that aim at increasing women’s employment should bear in mind that women’s productive and reproductive activities, in other words their family and work affairs, must be reconciled. This reconciliation is possible through the means of reducing women’s responsibilities at home and dividing the work equally between men and women. If this reconciliation is tried by means of entrepreneurship and flexible work forms while continuing not compensating women for their work in the house, this type of policy won’t deliver women-men equality in the labor market. In the National Employment Strategy Document, flexible labor markets, part-time work opportunities in flexicurity, jobs for a specific time period, temporary jobs via employmet agencies etc. are promised for increasing the number of women and men in employment. The strategy also aims at legalizing, documenting and popularizing some of the existing undeclared job types.

Many ILO studies have shown that part-time jobs that are aimed at reconciling women’s family and house responsibilities are usually unskilled and low-paying jobs compared to full-time positions. With part-time positions, it is much more difficult to fulfill the requirements of retirement; and in the case of retirement, the payments are much lower. This situation reaches worse conditions when the jobs are managed via employmet agencies; these jobs mean working for a defined period of time, not knowing when the next job will arrive, not fulfilling the requirements for unemployment insurance and living with concerns for not knowing how to earn a living. An economic growth that is based on offering women insecure and transitory jobs rather than full-time and secure that are compatible with human dignity and perpetuating women’s economic dependency on men cannot be seen as a growth model that puts women-men equality at its center. We cannot talk about a human-centered development without women gaining decent jobs, living without oppression and domination and having authority over their own lives. Labor organizations that favor a human-centered development should put gender equality in the center of their defence of workers’ rights. For this, there is a need to advocate the creation of public regulations, public services and policies that support women’s employment with the goal of ensuring the care of children, the elderly and the ill are distributed equally in the family and in society.

Editor note: The articles of “Discrimination at Workplace and Fight Against Discrimination” has been translated into English by Nevin Öztop.


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[1] Ankara University, Political Sciences Faculty, faculty member.

[2] This text is a short summary based on the author’s “Women’s Labor in Development” book (Varlık Publication, Ankara, 2012). The longer version has been published by Türk-İş in Unionist Academia Class Notes 2 (2013). 

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