politics : culture : economics

Is the decline in Turkey’s female labour participation rate necessarily a bad thing?

In Economy, Society, Women in Turkey on October 22, 2010 at 4:32 pm

In a recent post I noted that Turkey’s female labour participation rate (that is, the proportion of women who are in work or looking for work) has been falling since soon after TurkStat’s data series began in 1988. I highlighted the fact that this reflects the combined effects of migration and falling agricultural employment, coupled with pervasive negative attitudes to women working.

A bit of subsequent reading around makes it clear that labour force participation (on its own, at any rate) isn’t necessarily a great barometer of the socioeconomic status of Turkish women. This is because labour force data cover not just paid work, but also unpaid family work. You’ll find TurkStat’s definitions here. Look for ‘labour force’, ‘persons employed’ and ‘persons at work’. This isn’t just a Turkish sleight of hand. It reflects international definitions and is in line with, for example, the OECD’s definition, which refers to work “for family gain, in cash or in kind”.

If you have the time and inclination, there’s an interesting discussion of female participation rates in a report from the International Labour Office, entitled Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges.

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How significant is the inclusion of unpaid family work in Turkey’s labour force participation rates? Very, because so much of the agricultural employment that predominates in rural areas (where participation rates are higher) is of this kind. The table below is from a report produced jointly by the World Bank and Turkey’s State Planning Organisation in 2009, entitled Labour Force Participation in Turkey: Trends, Determinants and Policy Framework. It highlights the extent to which agricultural work in rural Turkey is likely to be informal and unpaid.

Table 1: Employment in Turkey’s rural areas, 2006
Unpaid (%) Informal (%)
Agriculture 77.50% 98.70%
Non-agriculture 7.40% 36.40%

How should all of this affect our understanding of the decline in female participation rates? Well, first of all it should prompt us to focus not just on levels of labour force participation but on levels of paid employment. According to the World Bank and the SPO, in 2009 the share of women employed as wage earners was 43 per cent, double the 1980s level. So while the rate of women in the labour force may have declined over the past two decades, those who are in the labour force today are more likely to be in more meaningful employment than was the case before.

What of those who have dropped out of the labour force? The World Bank and the SPO suggest that this isn’t necessarily to be understood as a sign of socioeconomic decline. It can reflect the greater level of income that comes when a household’s economic activity shifts away from agriculture. In other words, if a woman’s economic baseline is unpaid agricultural work, then exiting the labour force may count as moving up in the world. From the report:

In many cases, shifts in family activities away from subsistence agriculture (and especially in cases where the husband and/or household head move away from agriculture) cause a withdrawal of women from the labour force. For rural women, moving from unpaid work in agriculture to becoming full-time housewives (or students) is perceived positively by rural households and is regarded as a rational life choice. This socioeconomic phenomenon is regarded in Turkey as the process of young/rural women becoming more middle class. Indeed, as shown [in an accompanying chart], the observed decrease in rural female labour force participation has been particularly noticeable among women from younger cohorts.

I don’t know what the division of labour between the World Bank and the SPO on this report would have looked like. One would hope that the former kept the latter honest. The quote above tells a plausible story, but I’d be much happier with the claim that rural women see becoming a housewife as a a positive and rational development if it rested on survey or other evidence rather than on simple assertion. Those reservations notwithstanding, however, this all makes for more food for thought on the question of the role of women in Turkish society.

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