Just as Green Economy identifies ecological sustainability as a prerequisite for welfare, Purple Economy underlines the importance of the labor of care for personal and social welfare.

I first proposed the concept of “Purple Economy” at the Green Economy Conference organized by the Heinrich Böell Foundation in Istanbul in 2009. The conference was taking place at the Bilgi University campus in Tarlabaşı and I was invited there to analyze the concept of Green Economy from the gender perspective. When I went up on the stage as the last speaker, I could sense how tired the audience was. I was both resenting the fact that gender issues are often assigned the last spot in these conferences and consoling myself saying that even the inclusion of these issues is better than nothing. I looked around the auditorium and thought to myself that I should make an introduction that will intrigue the audience, and the term came out of my mouth at that moment: “Green Economy is not enough for sustainable development, we also need a little bit of Purple Economy; now let’s talk about Purple Economy.” A ripple of unease spread across the room; my strategy had worked. “Purple Economy” was a term that I had coined departing from the color purple; the symbolic color of the Women’s Movement, and the idea of “Green Economy”. I used the term to propose a gender-egalitarian economic model, but initially it wasjust a slogan to attract attention. The framework of the “Purple Economy” model and the necessary interventions to achieve it were to be clarified in the coming years, over a long-term process.

My presentation following the “Green Economy is not enough for Sustainability, Purple Economy is necessary as well” slogan in the Green Economy Conference in 2009, focused on “the care economy” and “work-life balance”, issues I was working on at the time. In 2008, we initiated a research project with Women for Women’s Rights New Ways on policies on gender equality and work-life balance in the labor market, spanning seven OECD countries including Turkey. Work-life balance wasn’t an issue that was topical yet in Turkey. In fact, we had long discussions about how to translate it into Turkish; considering if we should call it work and family life accommodation or work and family life balance; or just work-life accommodation or balance? When we completed our research and published our first Turkish publication on the subject in 2011, our primary finding was: Turkey has the worst work-life balance environment among the OECD countries. The working hours are the longest, wages are the lowest, informal employment is the most common, access to legal care leave is the most limited, the available care leaves are only geared towards women (the formally employed women), and public social care services —primarily childcare— are extremely limited. In such an environment, only formally employed individuals in well-paying jobs can maintain a work-life balance. A lot of women who don’t have a college degree, withdraw from the labor market after marriage and childbirth; taking on the domestic work full time as a housewife remains the only option. Even if they were to remain in the labor market in some way, the only option becomes working part time with flexible working hours in limited work fields, in a way that will allow them to simultaneously perform the unpaid care labor at home and paid labor at work. Consequently, Turkey is the country with the largest gender employment gap among the OECD countries. As a reflection of this inequality in the market, Turkey has by far the biggest inequality when it comes to women’s-men’s unpaid domestic work hours.

The gender inequality in employment rate and unpaid labor is even more striking, especially for populations with a high school degree or less than a high school degree. And this refers to the nature of the issue in which gender inequality intersects with socioeconomic class inequality. It is also very common for women from lower classes to migrate from the rural to the urban, from the south to the north abroad to provide labor of care. Women migrants with lower socioeconomic status coming from rural or developing countries, take on the labor of care at homes across urbanized, developed, countries in the north, with high economic status and buying power. Economy of care is laden with multi-layered inequalities, not only linked to gender but also to class and ethnic origin.

We can portray the care economy’s position within the labor market with the “iceberg metaphor”. Tip of the iceberg is visible over the water, but the real thing is submerged in it. The explicit gender inequality in the labor market (the gender gap in employment, gender wage gap, gender differences in occupational employment, the concept of glass ceiling, women’s representation in managerial/decision-making positions being almost non-existent…etc.) is only the tip of the iceberg, the visible part. Whereas the labor-intensive, time-consuming care economy, caring practices, and the unequal distribution of these responsibilities between men and women constitute the invisible part of the berg, under the water. It is impossible to overcome the resulting gender inequality in the labor market by overlooking the immense berg under the water (meaning the gender inequality in the care economy).

So, the common women’s employment’s policies such as tax incentives for business owners hiring women employees, professional education programs for women, micro-credit grants, and entrepreneurship grants… etc., can only have limited and short-term influences. It is impossible to eradicate the gender inequality in the labor market without overcoming the gender gap in the care economy. To enable this, we need policies that will transform some of the unpaid labor put on women’s shoulders into paid labor provided by public social services. These policies should also reinforce the idea that some of the domestic work should be transferred to male parties in the household and covered by their unpaid labor. Social care services include a range of services such as nurseries, kindergartens, active life centers that provide daily services to the elderly and disabled, care services for the bed-ridden elderly and patients provided at home or at residential homes. As long as these services are of good quality and accessible, it is possible to partially transfer part of the burden of domestic care labor to the public realm. I am emphasizing the word “partially”, because care labor tends to be provided mostly at home and as unpaid labor. If we were to imagine the opposite, for instance, what would a society in which children are cared for at kindergartens 7×24 look like? Technically, this is possible, but this is not the society we long for.

Furthermore, labor of care is not only necessary for children, the elderly, the disabled and patients, but also for healthy adults. A worker employed in the labor market, working from 8 am to 6 pm needs a healthy meal, a clean bed, home and clothes. As long as these are provided, they can feel revitalized the next day and go back to work as a healthy adult and be productive for the market. A beloved friend of mine, Italian feminist economist Antonella Picchio once said: “When it comes to labor of care feminists often talk about children (or nowadays increasingly about the elderly care). But doesn’t a man not doing any domestic work require as much labor of care as a child does, sometimes even more so?”

Then, a substantial amount of the labor of care will be provided at home and unpaid. For this work to be distributed among men and women equally, we need interventions to the regulations of the labor market, as well as the social care services: Primarily equal maternity and paternity leave durations, care leave to provide men and women equal conditions and incentive to care for the sick and elderly members of the family. Under the current regulations, a man with a newborn baby is legally allowed to take only 10 days of paid leave, even if he were willing to take care of his child. The terms of parental leave have been recently regulated; but men are mostly allowed to take unpaid leave, so the man who is on leave for the labor of care must give up on his income for that duration.

Secondly, we need full time work hours that allow men and women employees to have a work-life balance. In France, the legal length of working week is 35 hours per week, whereas in Turkey it is 45 hours. 10 hours makes a drastic difference. When we look at the de facto working hours, the gap is even larger, in Turkey the average working week is 50 hours; single men and women work over 55 hours. That is to say a full-time worker in Turkish labor market doesn’t even have the time to take care of themselves, there’s no way they could care for a child or elder/patient.

Moreover, it’s as important to overcome the gender wage gap. If a man earns more, it becomes reasonable for the woman to give up on her job or go on unpaid leave to do care work. So, it’s not a question of mentality but of financial circumstances; somebody has to take care of the baby and maintain the household, but you also need regular income to cover the rent and pay the bills, and a man and a woman are involved in the picture. So, the question is, what will the division of labor be like?

So, let’s imagine that this is a couple that strongly believes in gender equality, and they desire a relationship in which they share the responsibilities and opportunities evenly. But they’re facing explicit financial circumstances. While the mother can have four months of paid maternity leave, the paternity leave is only 10 days (and this is only if both of them are provided with insurance from their workplaces). Following the paid leave, theoretically they could share the unpaid leave period evenly. But under the current circumstances, it is very likely for the man to have a higher wage than the woman. If they want to maintain the maximum household income possible, it’s more reasonable for the woman to go on unpaid leave. Once the unpaid parental leave is over; they will need help to take care of the child who is still very young. At this point, if they’re lucky, a grandmother who lives nearby helps them out. Otherwise, they will have to send the child to kindergarten. Even if they could cover the kindergarten fees with the woman’s wage, full time work days are longer than kindergarten days. So, either the woman will have to work part-time, or they will also hire part-time help. And this will increase the expenses; besides this is a child —if they were to get sick, you wouldn’t be able to send them to kindergarten, then who would take care of them? Even if they were not to get sick, once you put childcare on top of domestic work, domestic labor multiplies. Then the child will need a sibling. The egalitarian couple does a reality check; it’s better for everyone if one of them were to stop working in order to have a decent family life. It is better for everyone if the one with the lower wage were to quit their job.

But how are we to overcome the gender wage gap? Partially through equal pay for equal work, quotas in employment and assignments, and similar interventions. But these interventions will only be effective once the working hours are regulated and gender gap in occupations/work models are overcome. Once women’s and men’s working hours, the amount of time they can allocate to their jobs and family, their drive, and priorities start to look alike. Once the gap between their work field choices, career ambitions and opportunities, work experience and years of seniority is reduced. Once the employers stop making decisions based on stereotypes such as “At the end of the day, she is a woman, her priority is her family. Anyway, she’ll probably get pregnant and leave soon” or “He’s a man, his priority is to thrive at work no matter what, to earn more (anyway, he must have a wife at home taking care of the children, maintaining the household)”. How will this happen? Primarily through making egalitarian interventions to care economy; care becoming a social responsibility as much as it is a humane necessity, and the labor of care being divided among the partners equally. So, we’re back at the beginning. Yes indeed, this is a cyclical process, a two-way street between the care economy and the market economy, bringing forth gender inequality. Purple Economy is comprised of policies aiming to disrupt this vicious circle: Providing accessible social care services at global standards and simultaneously, strictly regulating the labor market for employees to have a healthy work-life balance, and for establishing gender equality.

I was invited to a meeting organized by the German Ministry of Environment and Life e.V., an independent NGO in Berlin, at the  beginning of 2013. The meeting was titled “Green Economy, Green Growth and the Care Economy”. They had heard about my concept of “Purple Economy” and wanted me to present my work on it. The vision of “Purple Economy”, a term I initially proposed in 2009 as a gender egalitarian economy slogan was clearer by then —as illustrated above. But beyond that, what was its link to the Green Economy?  What were the intersections between these economic models beyond the color analogies and catchy, slogan-like phrases?

Initially, Green Economy was a response to the environmental crisis during the 1980s. Profit oriented market mechanism uses natural resources mostly as free production input. Since there are no regulations that holds the producers and consumers accountable, the market can’t afford the renewal of these resources. In the long term, this results in overconsumption of natural resources for profit and the ecological crisis. Green Economy proposes an economic system that prioritizes preservation of natural resources over making profit and strictly regulates the market to be concurrent with nature.

In this respect, there are important similarities between the Green Economy and the Purple Economy. The market economy not only uses the natural resources, but also human labor as essential production input. Just as it can’t afford the renewal of nature, it is unable to cover the cost of the reproduction of labor. A substantial part of this cost is covered by women’s free labor. It profits from the unpaid care economy, but nevertheless excludes it from politics. However, in the long run, this includes the threat of another systematic crisis that some feminist economists refer to as “the crisis of care”. The crisis of care indicates the possibility of people’s desire and ability to provide voluntary caring labor being worn out through the increasingly competitive market conditions and the individualistic, consumerist ideology imposed by market economy. Just as Green Economy identifies ecological sustainability as a prerequisite for welfare, Purple Economy underlines the importance of the labor of care for personal and social welfare. It prioritizes providing humane conditions for people to labor under over the market’s profit mechanism. It calls for an economic system that internalizes the costs related to these conditions, strictly regulates the market economy for men and women to have equal work and equal pay.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, the concept of Green Economy was developed as a means to solve not only the environmental crisis, but also the financial crisis and unemployment. These crises would be resolved through “green jobs”, “green investments”, “green subsidies” and “green growth”. Purple Economy complements the Green Economy when it comes to sustainability, but it also proposes solutions to the economic crisis through “purple jobs”, “purple investments”, “purple subsidies” and “purple growth”. Recent research studies conducted by feminist scholars underscore that the purple investments made to the social care services sector could create side jobs for millions of men and women across the world; purple economy policies would reinforce gender equality while reducing unemployment rates and class inequalities, would increase productivity and enhance extensive, high-level economic growth. Purple Economy and Green Economy call for new economic models for sustainable growth and development that would complement each other; they propose feasible solutions to economic, social, and ecological issues. As long as we have the public will on our side.


İlkkaracan, İ. (2018). Promoting Women’s Empowerment: Recognizing and Investing in the Care Economy. Policy paper. New York: UN Women.

İlkkaracan, İ. (2017). “A Feminist Alternative to Austerity: The Purple Economy as a Gender-egalitarian Strategy for Employment Generation,” H. Bargawi, G. Cozzi ve S. Himmelweit (ed.) in Economics and Austerity in Europe: Gendered Impacts and Sustainable Alternatives, London: Routledge.

İlkkaracan, İ. (2013). “The Purple Economy: A Call for a New Economic Order beyond the Green Economy”, in U. Röhr and C. Van Heemstra (ed.) Sustainable Economy and Green Growth: Who Cares?, Berlin: Life e.V.

İlkkaracan, İ. (2011). “The Crisis of Care: Another Limit to Sustainable Growth in Market Economies”, in A. Tonak (ed.) IMF and the World Bank: A Critical Debate. İstanbul: Bilgi University.

İlkkaracan, İ., Kim, K. (2018). The Employment Generation Impact of Meeting SDG Targets in Early Childhood Care, Education, Health and Long-Term Care in 45 Countries. Background Paper for ILO Report on “Care Jobs and the Care Economy”, Geneva: ILO.

İlkkaracan, İ., Kim, K., Kaya, T. (2015). The Impact of Investments in Social Care Services on Employment, Gender Equality and Poverty: The Case of Turkey. Istanbul and New York: İstanbul: Technical University, Women’s Studies Center in Science, Engineering and Technology and Levy Economics Institute.

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

Translator: Gülşah Mursaloğlu

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here