The kinds of jobs women hold are as important as the question of their employment now; the curation and placement of their public image and the authority they wield is as important as their visibility; their influence over management is as important as their appointment to management positions. If the question is to constitute a “silent” majority, then women of this country have come a long way at least in academia and white-collar jobs. However, their exclusion from decision-making processes is an ongoing issue.

Academia stands out as an environment that has both welcomed and excluded women over the course of history with its many transformations. In different countries including ours, institutions of higher education present themselves as prestigious establishments where women do not participate in any case, and where women’s participation cannot even be envisioned. We can infer that women weren’t accepted into fields which bestowed economic and political privileges, during periods when they were not allowed to enter the workforce. Shall we take a quick look at history? USA and England as the countries with institutions that rank the highest in university rankings have started accepting female students to higher education institutions in 1831 and 1849 respectively. These institutions have existed since the second half of the 1100s and most have them survived until today without any interruption. Furthermore, women have been working in high ranked positions in England for over centuries. Considering all these, the fact that women have been accepted to universities in England so late in history, sums up the exclusivity of the academia itself.

Women’s “acceptance” into universities has accelerated in countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America with industrialization and the accompanying modernization movements. Dates might be misleading; it wasn’t like women appeared in higher education institutions all of a sudden. Just as there were countries (such as Kuwait), where women’s applications to university were only accepted in the 1960s, there were also universities in the US −where women started to attend universities at an earlier date− that still didn’t accept female students in the second half of the 20th century.[1] It also took a long time for women to be students of all disciplines; it was only later in history that they were accepted to majors that are deemed prestigious by modern societies such as medicine and engineering. Today, one of the many criteria Times Higher Education World University Rankings −which is extremely valued by the universities of our day− considers is the proportion of women students and academic staff, along with other ones such as staff to student ratio. Despite its exclusionary history, this consideration attests to academia’s ongoing endeavor to include women.

Now, let’s zoom in again. As far as official history goes, Turkey was one of the countries in which women’s visibility in the public sphere increased in parallel to the modernization movements at the end of 19th century. The long process that led to women’s access to higher education came along as an extension of girls’ right to education. It was only by 1930 that women and men had equal access to all levels of education, the first woman lecturer was hired in 1933[2]. The following change was both rapid and surprising, since only a decade after the first appointment of a woman lecturer, %13 of academic staff were women. While explaining this turn in academia, as well as the increase of the number of women in white collar jobs, macro politics offers a significant narrative that is unique to modernization’s course in countries like Turkey: Westernization requires women’s presence in the public sphere and with the decrease of the male population in the post-war era, especially positions that required specific skills were filled by upper class women. In her article “Turkish Women in the Professions”[3], Ayşe Öncü draws a relationship between women having prestigious professions and the new republic’s manner of managing staff. She asserts that considering the historical context, gender has aptly “won over” class −the other main axis of social segregation− and consequently upper-class women were able to take part in the professional field.

On the other hand, it would be unfair not to mention the women’s movement that has been rooted in this land since the 18th century. We should also take into account the struggle between the increasing variety of demands within a society that nourishes (and is nourished by) this movement. Then let’s recapture a few things regarding our specific topic. In the periodicals published by the Ottoman women’s movement, there were a lot of texts demanding girls’ and women’ access to public education[4]. In 1914, when women showed a lot of interest in the open classes at Darülfunun[5], they increased the number of the classes and started offering degrees, making them more accessible. These are only a few examples.

Women used to be only accepted to certain departments, however today according to the data compiled by ÖSYM[6] in 2021, %45 of the higher education staff are women, and this ratio is above the world average. Just to illustrate it further, this ratio is higher than Canada and Netherlands, it’s a considerable progress. Especially if we consider Turkey’s position in international rankings regarding gender equality and women’s employment rates, this ratio is remarkable. I must note that women’s participation in the workforce in Turkey is %32.2. With this ratio, Turkey is in the last place among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. The average ratio of the OECD countries is %61!

Let’s take a closer look at academia. The trends that set the course of things in global academia are also at play in the universities in Turkey: The negative correlation between women’s ratio and the academic rankings, women staff mostly working in entry level positions and as teaching assistants, and women being underrepresented in fields such as engineering and natural sciences. Nevertheless, it is surprising, but we can still say that the effects of these global trends are relatively minimal. For instance, %32 percent of the professors −the highest rank in the hierarchy− in Turkey are women, and it is the category in which women are least represented. However, considering the world average this ratio is still remarkable and it has increased successively over the years. Women’s representation in other academic positions has also increased. In academia, women have the highest ratio of %51 in research assistantships. As it is well known, this is the entry-level position in academia. On the other hand, unfortunately it has become increasingly precarious over time because of the regimes that prioritize flexibility. This situation can also be explained through women’s tendency to take lower ranking and precarious positions −unlike men. However, I do think that it also has consequences in favor of women and offers different readings about the situation at large. First of all, academia is still considered as one of the relatively prestigious fields in Turkey, also in many other countries. Secondly, the number of women in entry level and higher academic positions have increased visibly over the years. Departing from these two facts and offering an alternative reading, we can say that this prestigious field has gradually opened to more and more women and this is especially the case for the new generation. Another data that supports this reading is the gender distribution in majors. Engineering, an area in which the number of women is relatively small across the world, is also the field where women are least represented in Turkey. Nevertheless, women’s ratio in engineering majors is %35 and it shows an increase over time. %45 percent of the academic staff in Med Schools −which has a high status among majors and in society− across Turkey are women.

When it comes to decision-making mechanisms, the gender distribution in academia −which has resisted global tendencies− drastically changes! It is a known fact that the business world and politics have been characterized by underrepresentation of women for a long while. When we briefly take a look at the numbers, we see that out of the 209 universities only 17 of them have female rectors (%8) −this percentage hasn’t changed much over the past decade−, whereas the ratio of women deans has increased from %9 in 2013[7] to %17.5 in 2019[8]. I haven’t come across any definitive, organized quantitative data sets regarding the lower administrative positions. However, case studies suggest that the number of women managers increase as you go down in the administrative ranks. The positions in which women are most represented are department chairs. Despite the increasing ratios and the frustrating relationship between gender and management, this situation is still confounding. The fact that women are so removed from decision-making mechanisms in a field where they are highly represented, reflects the nature of the organization of knowledge production.  Unfortunately, we can say that the positions women fill are losing their relevance in a system that is increasingly centralized. Even the upper middle, and middle level administrators are no longer parties when it comes to making important decisions regarding institutions. However, other studies show that women’s presence in university senates has increased, especially in universities that are relatively institutionalized, carrying out studies that aim at knowledge production that meet international standards. While writing this text, I also had the chance to briefly look at the numbers after the recent changes in academia: In Boğaziçi University 7 out of 20, in Hacettepe University 20 out 55, in Mimar Sinan University 7 out of 13 senate members are women. But it’s also important to note that 21 universities in Turkey don’t even have female senate members.

Why do all these facts matter anyway? It would be fair to say that a lot of practices aimed at women’s participation in the workforce don’t particularly have feminist motivations. But women’s participation in the workforce is pivotal for the present production system now more than ever. Without getting further into details, I must also note that there’s an ongoing debate regarding how women’s visibility improves productivity and institutional culture. On the other hand, it also seems like women’s representation in institutions is a result of values that gained prominence recently such as egalitarian policies and participatory institutional cultures. At this point, women’s presence signifies “quality” for a lot of institutions. As I mentioned above, it’s not a coincidence that one of the criteria considered for university rankings is the ratio of women staff and students. We can easily say that women’s participation in the workforce has become a mainstream issue also in Turkey. Today, universities are fields in which women and men are almost represented equally. However, most of the women are still in entry-level or unpromising positions and this attests to the exclusive nature of academic work. In other respects, the gender distribution among administrative positions provides ground not just for understanding the gender dynamics within academia, but also for discussing the direction/demands of women’s struggle. Here is what I am trying to say: the kinds of jobs women hold are as important as the question of their employment now; the curation and placement of their public image and the authority they wield is as important as their visibility; their influence over management is as important as their appointment to management positions. If the question is to constitute a “silent” majority, then women of this country have come a long way at least in academia and white-collar jobs. However, their exclusion from decision-making processes is an ongoing issue. Aside from defending equal participation mechanisms, I believe that we need to move on to a perspective that urges women’s (and actually also other secondary group’s) presence in decision-making processes, roots for female leadership and is willing to move beyond a silent majority.

Translator: Gülşah Mursaloğlu

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

[1] Wikipedia’s entry of Timeline of Women’s Education offers a thorough timeline of women’s admission to universities around the world.

[2] For an extensive history of girls’ and women’s access to different levels of education in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic see: Tümer, E. (2003). II Meşrutiyet’ten Cumhuriyet’e Kızların Eğitimi [Education of Girls from 1903 until the Republic], Turkish Historical Association, Ankara.

[3] Öncü, Ayşe (1979). “Turkish Women in Professions.” in Women in Turkish Society (ed.) Nermin Abadan Unat. Leiden: E.J. Brill. pg 181-194.

[4] For a prominent work on this issue see: Çakır, S. (1996). Osmanlı Kadın Hareketi [The Ottoman Women’s Movement].Istanbul: Metis Publishing.

[5] Darülfunun was the first  modern university in the Ottoman Empire.

[6] ÖSYM is the state body responsible for organizing nationwide examinations for the placement of high school graduates into higher education institutions.

[7] KADER (2013) Kadın İstatistikleri [Statistics on Women],

[8] Ankara University KASAUM (2019), 2019 Ocak ayı itibariyle Akademide Kadın İstatistikleri [Statistics on Women in Academia as of January 2019].


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here