Turkey ranks 125th out of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. In terms of education, 95% of the gender gap has already been closed. However, only 45% of the economic gender gap has been closed. While investments have been made in developing Turkey’s economic capital, the country is not reaping the full returns from that investment.

The Turkey Gender Parity Task Force, launched in 2012, is a three-year initiative that aims to close the economic gender gap in Turkey by up to 10%. The task force operates under the patronage of the Ministry of Family and Social Policies of Turkey, with two private sector co-chairs, Ferit Şahenk, Chairman of Doğuş Group, and Güler Sabanci, Chairwoman and Managing Director of Sabanci Group.

We spoke to one of the task force executive committee members, who preferred not to be named, about why it is so important to close the gap, and what the task force has achieved since it was launched. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to gender equality in your country?

First of all there is awareness of the business case for closing the gender gap. We find that many companies are not aware of the benefits or importance of closing the gap and there is not much gender-based reporting.

Secondly, around the world, there are so many issues, such as the environment and climate change. Closing the gender gap is just one of these issues. Once we have raised awareness, the second step is making it relevant, so that companies act on this awareness.

Q: What steps has the task force taken to close the gender gap?

From the beginning, the executives and HR directors of the companies that have signed up to the task force were made aware of how crucial the issue is. They were encouraged to produce corporate policies and practices designed to help close the gender gap. A number of firms made commitments and these commitments are monitored using annual reports to assess the influence of the task force over time.

There is a declaration we have prepared for companies and a best practice manual for establishing corporate gender equality, which describes HR practices that task force members have put in place. And there is a guidebook, which aims to integrate gender diversity into the supply chain. So even for those companies that do not sign up, it gives them the opportunity to take advantage of the documentation.

There are good structures in place to encourage learning within the group. We started with an internet site for the task force but it was not user-friendly and we changed it based on comments from companies. We also established a HR working group that gets together and shares best practices.

Q: What has worked best?

The government and businesses work well together, so there is effective collaboration between us. You can think of it like the four elements: the practical guidelines, which are flexible and transparent, are like water; best practices are like air, and we’re trying to make them part of the culture; there are support systems, the inclusion of top management and HR, which is like earth; and fire is most likely the commitment of the ministry, the fire within people’s hearts.

Q: What has been the most difficult to implement?

I think going into SMEs, smaller companies, and especially in Anatolia. Going outside of big cities and going outside of big companies. Bigger companies have more experience in dealing with these issues. There is more corporate governance so they are familiar with how to tackle these issues, whereas an SME is more focused on how to actually make profits, run the company and grow. When the SMEs see this is an opportunity for growth, they like it, but it isn’t as obvious for them as for the bigger companies.

Q: What are the next steps in narrowing the gap?

There is still so much to do. We have to further identify and delegate responsibilities in the public and private sectors. We are trying to be extremely inclusive. We have to involve the media, academia and NGOs, which we are embracing but we have to do more of that. We need role model companies and we need more monitoring of the applicants.

Q: Why is it so important to narrow the gender gap?

All the research around the world, regardless of the country, shows that for growth, for income inequality, for many reasons that are strictly business-related, closing the gender gap is crucial. In other words, companies that have more women on their boards have higher returns. When companies give women greater responsibilities, it shows up in their results. I’m only giving the strict business case because the task force is dealing with businesses and trying to raise awareness among them.

Q: To what extent do you need to tackle cultural assumptions around motherhood and work, in order to make progress towards gender equality?

This is crucial. Making it fit the culture is extremely important. If the culture is our material, we have to be able to make the best outfit out of it. But it’s also important that while we are trying to tackle these assumptions, we don’t lose the focus on the issue itself. The current policy debates around work/family balance can marginalize women and be used by some people to justify their lower status. The current focus on work/family issues masks the present gender inequality and issues around unequal pay.

Q: To what extent have things improved in terms of closing the gender gap over the past 10 years?

Since 2002 it has been improving. Turkey has moved up the ranking and is now 125th out of 142 countries. This is not great but it is something and everything starts with small steps. At least we are showing working progress; that is something we are proud of. Since 2012, a series of policy reforms have taken place and there continues to be policy attention on this. For example, a new policy proposal calls for flexible working hours after the 16 weeks of maternity leave, although this has not yet been passed by the Assembly.

Q: The country’s ranking suggests there are big challenges ahead. What do you believe you can achieve in the next five or 10 years in terms of progress towards gender equality?

In Turkey, there is significant potential for increasing the economic power of women. There is a government target to increase women’s labour force participation from 30% today to 41% by 2023. Public policies need to be even more aggressive. Work regulations, wage equality, educational attainment for women, we see all these things as an opportunity.

But it’s not enough to depend on public policies alone. The private sector needs to do some work too. More companies should measure and set targets and report and create awareness.

In the private and public sectors, we are really trying to make an effort, but there is always more we can do. I think we have a long journey ahead.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May.

Image: A trader works on the floor of the Istanbul Stock Exchange October 3, 2008. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas