Business Leads

12.22.14 10:55 AM ET

The Women Battling an Islamist Strongman

As Turkey’s president restricts free speech and ignores domestic violence, the country’s businesswomen are pushing back.

ISTANBUL—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision last week to arrest the editor in chief of an opposition newspaper is the latest crack in this country’s image as a modern, Westernized country. But it’s not the only sign of an erosion of rights.

Turkey has had more than a decade of economic boom, and is now the sixth-most-visited tourist destination in the world. Yet, beyond the glittering skyscrapers and nightclubs, persistent questions remain over human-rights abuses and, in particular, the country’s increasingly unequal treatment of women.

Last weekend when Erdoğan’s police were trying to silence the media, the steady degradation of women’s rights continued, with four more women dying from domestic violence. The number of such deaths has remained stubbornly high over the years despite the country’s economic ascension. A 2011 UN report slammed Turkey for having domestic-violence rates almost twice those in the United States and 10 times higher than in some European countries. For empowering women, Turkey ranks near the bottom, at 125th in the 2014 World Economic Forum report on female empowerment—five places lower than the previous year.

So despite finger-wagging from EU governments about human rights—and another warning that came  Tuesday following the arrest of journalists—Erdoğan’s conservative government seems unlikely to lift a finger for women.

Fortunately, another group is leaning in: Turkish women business leaders. On Monday, a university founded by Turkey’s most powerful female CEO issued a groundbreaking report on the impact of domestic abuse on the workplace. The report reframes the issue of domestic violence as not just a problem for society, but also for business. This is the first study of its kind in Turkey and raises the possibility that a private solution could solve a public problem.

According to the report, 75 percent of female college graduates have been victims of violence at least once in their lives. Furthermore, as women’s levels of education and income rise, they are less likely to report domestic violence. The report documents how domestic violence leads to greater absenteeism, loss of concentration, and unprofessionalism—all issues that should concern employers.

“Domestic violence is a serious issue for working women,” said Melsa Ararat, chief researcher and management professor at Sabancı University, which ran the study. “We wanted to show how it affected women’s performance at work and in their career, and how business can play a role in offering solutions.”  

Turkey is not the only country trying to convince the private sector that domestic violence is their problem, too. The report builds on a recent UN report documenting the high economic costs worldwide of domestic violence. In Chile, for example, domestic-violence costs add up to 2 percent of the country’s GDP. In the U.S., the estimated cost is as high as $5.8 billion per year, which includes costs for the justice system, police, and counseling and training.

The woman behind Monday’s report is Güler Sabancı, the chairwoman of Sabancı Holding, Turkey’s biggest industrial and financial conglomerate, who has made it her business to address women’s issues. She is also head of the Sabancı Foundation, which conducts female-empowerment programs for women in rural Turkey. Her organization is also attempting to get more women on executive committees of the boards of Turkish companies (currently at 9 percent, they say).

Sabancı is not the only businesswoman working on this. A third of senior executives and 12 percent of CEOs in Turkey are now women, according to the World Bank, which is similar or higher than European countries. Some of them are taking a page from Sheryl Sandberg and reaching back to help others.

According to a recent article in Hurriyet newspaper, Ümit Boyner, the former chair of the Turkish Business and Industry Association (TÜSİAD) and a member of the executive board of Boyner Holding, has a project called Nar Taneleri (Pomegranate Seeds). The project tries to help young Turkish women raised in orphanages to start their own businesses. And Serra Akçaoğlu, the general manager of Citibank, has launched a “Micro-entrepreneur Competition,” which encourages low-income women in every province of Turkey to join the entrepreneurship venture with minimal capital.  

These are small efforts, limited in reach, but if a “Lean In” dynamic springs from them, then they stand to do something that the law has not—change a culture.

Turkey has spent most of the 1990s and 2000s racking up legislative victories for women notable in the Muslim world: protection orders in domestic-violence cases, stronger divorce laws, and more punitive jail sentences for honor killings. Women advocates have also managed to crack down on cases in which judges minimized sentences for men who argued they killed their partner out of passion or to defend their honor.

But none of these victories have brought down domestic homicides, which the government says number between 200–300 women a year. (Advocacy groups say it’s much higher.)

Seeing Turkey’s female business leaders reach back to help lift all women is not only inspiring, but also savvy. Erdoğan’s government has stated its aspiration to be a top-10 economy by 2023, yet Turkey still has the lowest female labor-force participation rate of the 34 nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. It has the lowest percentage of women who bank. And it has a high percentage of women who say their husbands forbid them from working. Improving an economy is a lot harder with only half the population working.

Female business leaders offer the hope of a private solution where a public one failed. In a region already stained by Islamic extremists’ violent treatment of women, and by dictators whose failure to allow even a modicum of freedom has sparked civil war and a refugee crisis, Turkish women leaders are showing that their country would do better to set itself apart, not appear to join them.