Bain & Company, as part of its continued global commitment to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world, engaged in conversations with Turkish women executives to discuss the findings coming from research on the status of female leadership in Türkiye; learn more about their long-term journeys of success, empowerment, and growth; and get their views on how to boost efforts toward a properly balanced and brighter professional future for all, regardless of gender.
Our team performed interviews with 20 Turkish women leaders to discuss their personal experiences in pursuing professional success. Interviewees came from multiple sectors, including manufacturing, financial services, pharmaceutical, luxury goods and retail, renewable energy, higher education, telecommunications, information management services, legal, international residency, and publishing. The participants ranged in level from CEOs to board members to managing directors and heads of departments.
The role of women in organizational leadership—so indispensable and still challenging
Conversations with talented global women leaders are likely to unveil experiences and perspectives that have enhanced decision-making and encouraged a broader range of ideas and solutions. Diverse and inclusive organizations are shown to be five times more innovative and up to six times more likely to retain employees, which further enhances organizational performance and outcomes.
Diverse leadership will mirror a diverse customer base, allowing organizations to connect with customers on a deeper level and build long-lasting relationships. And yet, based on data collected in 2021 from the top 100 publicly listed companies by market capitalization in 22 stock exchanges across G20 countries, women hold only 20.2% of board seats, 5.5% of chair seats, and 3.5% of CEO positions.
The journey of a woman toward leadership is marked by various milestones, both personal and professional. From birth conditions to educational opportunities, from career start to pregnancy and then back to work, each of these milestones presents its own set of challenges that must be overcome to persist in the professional journey.
Unfair socioeconomic opportunities place additional burdens on women born into disadvantaged backgrounds, making it imperative for them to win higher obstacles to personal and professional success. Disparities in education further complicate matters, as some women receive quality education and job prospects, while others are denied these opportunities, potentially resulting in unemployment. One woman interviewed by Bain & Company believes meritocracy at the board level is highly dependent on educational opportunities.
Gender bias also poses a significant hurdle for women in building their careers, and excessive conflicts or prejudices can lead to burnout and diminished motivation. One of our interviewees said her assertive nature has often been judged as aggressive; another said that women are held to a higher standard in Türkiye; while another woman explained that when she received her company car, she didn’t want to ask how to set her car up because she was afraid she’d seem “needy.”
When women and their partners make the decision to start a family, women often encounter employment gaps if they choose and are able to undergo pregnancy. Upon returning to work, they must readjust to the demands of their careers while managing new duties that demand their time and attention. Some women can balance the responsibilities of caregiving and pursuing their careers, while others find themselves overwhelmed by the unequal burdens society often places on them, compared to their male counterparts. As confirmed by one of the interviewees, there is still room for progress with cultural change when it comes to childcare and equal duties in the household.
According to Nielsen, “by 2028, women will own 75% of the discretionary spend, making them the world’s greatest influencers. Yet, around the world, women are shouldering more of the household burdens, feeling less financially secure and still are facing serious barriers when it comes to equality.” To add to this, women who encounter domestic violence or health issues must grapple with the further complexities of their situation.
Türkiye at a glance
In Türkiye, women face specific and compounded challenges that can impede their professional advancement and create barriers to their success. These obstacles align with issues encountered by women in leadership positions around the world, such as limited access to mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, discrimination upon reentering the workforce after caregiving, encountering a “glass ceiling” despite qualifications and experience, age discrimination affecting advancement opportunities, and the dilemma of being perceived as either too assertive or not assertive enough. Underscoring these challenges is the fact that Türkiye ranks 124 out of 146 countries in terms of gender equality.
The landscape in Türkiye when it comes to board diversity reveals a mixed picture. In 2021, the general trend for boards consisted of an average of seven directors, with almost 31% of these positions filled by independent members. The median number of independent directors was two, and the representation of women on boards remained relatively low.
In 2022, board seats filled by female directors in BIST-100 companies rose to a 17.5% average, up from 15.3% in 2021. However, 33.1% of all BIST companies still held an all-male board.
Also in 2022, 41 companies appointed a female chairperson (vs. 434 male chairs), but 38 of the 41 female chairpersons were affiliated with controlling families and/or own a significant amount of shares. Only three professional women were appointed to board chairs, compared to 149 professional men.
Despite the positive trend, the regulatory framework in Türkiye still does not promote wider female representation on company boards. While countries such as Italy, Germany, and Greece prescribe gender quotas for listed companies and set sanctions in case of noncompliance, in Türkiye there is currently no legally binding requirement or sanction for companies regarding gender ratios.
Behind the curtain: Women’s perspectives in Türkiye
On top of analyzing the data highlighting the professional landscape for women in Türkiye, Bain & Company sought validation by collecting perspectives directly from businesswomen who have succeeded in the current business context. The purpose of interviewing these women was to better understand the individual perspectives of successful female leaders during their careers and to provide an inspirational message for future generations. Five key messages can be highlighted from these conversations:
1. Ambition matters. Ambition serves as a driving force in the leadership trajectories for women. From a young age, many women leaders have been fueled by an innate desire to excel, often bolstered by the unwavering encouragement of their families.
2. Long-term success means trade-offs. For female leaders, professional success often involves making trade-offs. Nearly all the women interviewed shared that they have had to prioritize and deprioritize aspects of their lives as they advanced their careers.
3. Mentorship and sponsorship can make the difference. Mentorship—where an individual serves as both a personal and professional counsel, offering guidance behind the scenes—emerges as a crucial factor to ensuring continued and sustainable development. Female leaders acknowledge the value of having experienced individuals around them from whom they can seek guidance and advice, particularly during the more arduous periods of their careers. But mentorship alone is not enough. Sponsorship—where someone acts as an external advocate, proactively aiding in career advancement, linking their reputation, and forging networks while facilitating actions and creating conditions for progression—is also key to opening the way to tangible career opportunities and new professional challenges, and it is an important part of ascending the career ladder.
4. Gender bias is still a reality. Unequal professional opportunities and unconscious gender bias within organizations is an unfortunate reality experienced by women in the workplace. Women and men face vastly different career experiences and trajectories. Many women leaders report the perception of a glass ceiling to professional progress beyond certain levels as well as the need to work twice as hard and overcompensate to compete with male peers and overcome unconscious prejudices about what can be considered “women’s work.”
5. Organizations must lead the change. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is significantly bolstered when organizations take bold steps to support gender diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. Despite the progress made in fostering diversity within professional environments in the last decade, there is still ample room for improvement and further advancement, especially when it comes to cultural change.
Despite the general consensus among our interviewees on the current status of gender equity in the workplace and the call for more concerted and ambitious steps toward full gender equality in organizational leadership, the overall outlook for the future is largely optimistic: We are still not there and the way ahead is full of challenges, but the peak is achievable.
The five distinct themes above can be looked at more in depth, based on the insights gleaned from the interviews.
Ambition is paramount in shaping the leadership journey for women
One hundred percent of the leaders we interviewed claimed to have always been ambitious. Motivation for success usually comes from within or is encouraged by immediate family, starting from an early age.
One interviewee said she has been ambitious since a young age, even while swimming. If someone was swimming faster than her, she would try to catch up. Now she hopes her ambitious nature makes her a role model for her daughter. Another participant explained that she changes jobs when she believes she is no longer accelerating in her learning journey.
If being ambitious and highly motivated is pivotal to succeeding in a world where women still have to elbow their way to the leading chairs, it is important to consider that there is a negative connotation surrounding ambitious women. As one interviewee explained, some people think ambition means women will do anything to get what they want, such as sacrificing their ethics and morals for the sake of becoming successful. She believes, however, that the definition of ambition is being energetic and focused on delivering valuable results.
Perhaps the view of female ambition as a positive force aligns with analysis revealing that gender disparity has improved for women in multiple directorships in the last decade. In 2022, women held 428 of 563 board seats, while men held 2,088 of 2,648 seats. The percentage of women holding multiple directorships stood at 18.7%, slightly higher than the 16.8% of men holding multiple directorships. This marked the first time since 2012 that more women held four or more seats compared to men. However, it is disheartening to note that 158 of 475 BIST companies did not include any female directors on their boards. At approximately 33%, the rate remained largely unchanged from the previous year.
Long-term success for women is not without trade-offs
Women we interviewed discussed pregnancy and maternity leave in terms of trade-offs for career development. One participant was worried she’d lose her position or her title when she was on leave. Likewise, another interviewee said becoming a mother made balancing work and life difficult. She worked until her last day of pregnancy, was often available by phone during her maternity leave, and went back to work three months after giving birth.
Being a single mother and main breadwinner compounds the challenges, and women expressed regret for having to compromise raising their children in favor of their careers. These interviewees prioritized financial means over being directly involved in childrearing.
On the other hand, one interviewee said she believes effective prioritization allows balance in a life full of responsibilities. Passion, practicality, and deft prioritization allow her to fit everything into her day.
Mentorship and sponsorship are the unsung heroes in a woman’s climb to leadership
Mentorship plays a key role in long-term development, and colleagues or family members often support leader candidates through tough decisions and pivotal moments.
Mentorship was frequently (95%) cited by the women interviewed as an invaluable resource. Many expressed gratitude toward their families and professional mentors for inspiring them to become the best version of themselves and for instilling the importance of prioritizing and focusing on what creates value. Some highlighted headhunters and supportive bosses who trusted their skills, shared advice on how to become a winner in professional life, and facilitated networking opportunities with other professional women. One interviewee regretted that there were very few female professional mentors in the country when she started her career, and that the current number is still limited. A mentor isn’t necessarily someone more senior or who has already advanced their career; it can be someone who inspires you because they have qualities you don’t have. In cases where formal mentorship was lacking, the women we interviewed sought inspiration from books and external role models.
Thirty-six percent of women cited a lack of mentors as the biggest obstacle they faced in their journey to becoming a chief executive. And 81% of chief executives 45 years old or younger believed they would benefit from mentoring.
The women we interviewed are all actively engaged in formal or informal mentorship programs and aim to shed light on mentorship for future young leaders, while fostering a sentiment of camaraderie and community among women in the workplace. They highly encourage every woman professional to find her own mentor, regardless of gender, and learn as much as they can from them, in terms of experience, skills, and motivation.
But mentorship alone cannot do all the work. According to Strategy People Culture Consulting, 70% of career growth happens on the job, 20% is supported by critical relationships, and the remaining 10% is achieved through formal training. Too few women are reaching top-level management status at their companies due to nonexistent or insufficient access to meaningful sponsorship—an influential leader who can guide them toward high-stakes assignments with differentiating experiences and tangible career opportunities.
Gender inequality and unconscious bias remain stubborn barriers in women’s professional journeys
Hitting a glass ceiling is still reported as a reality by many women aiming at long-lasting careers. There are instances in which less qualified male colleagues have received promotions instead of their more qualified female counterparts, especially when applying for senior executive or CEO positions.
Unconscious bias emerged as a pervasive concern for women in Türkiye.
In one instance, a participant recounted expressing interest in pursuing a vacant CEO position. The board informed her that the company had never had a female CEO, dashing her opportunity to pursue the position.
One interviewee shared the feeling of always being a minority in the rooms she has been in, starting with education in STEM and continuing in industries highly dominated by men. She overcame this feeling by always seeing herself simply as a professional, not as a woman or a man. Some interviewees claimed that men are approached more often to handle difficult crisis situations or tasks involving risk. Another participant mentioned a time when her clients were more engaged with her lower-level male colleagues than with her, despite her position being higher in the business hierarchy. Pay discrepancies (up to 50%) with male counterparts were reported by many interviewees as one of the most visible areas of gender inequality.
Sometimes women create their own perception of bias in the workplace and are less confident in speaking up or asking for what they deserve. To paraphrase one of our interviewees: Women often come to work with their gender first, while men come with their ambitions.
Women’s unconscious bias and inequality experiences are felt globally. Ninety percent of citizens of G7 countries believe women should be treated equally to men in all areas based on their competency. However, external and internal subconscious judgment persists. An average of 67% of professionals concur that gender inequality is present at the workplace, with 74% of women agreeing with the statement compared to 59% of men. Thirty-two percent of women observe being paid less competitively compared to their male colleagues who have equal competencies, and 61% of women believe they receive fewer opportunities for new business.
Organizations championing DEI are paving the way for genuine progress and inclusivity
All the women leaders we interviewed confirm that organizations can play a substantial role in supporting DEI efforts and lead the cultural change needed to substantiate real empowerment for women. They all agree that progress has been made (60% partial progress, 40% significant progress), with valuable best practices implemented by Turkish companies. But according to 95% of our interviewees, more organizations need to “walk the talk” and take action.
One hundred percent of the participants interviewed firmly believe that DEI is necessary for organizations to promote a fair work environment, which can maximize employee performance and retention. The participants generally agree that companies are being more intentional about diversifying their leadership teams. They have observed improvement in DEI efforts, especially following the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and an increase in the number of women occupying executive management positions.
Despite notable progress in figures (e.g., women to men ratio) and in general behaviors in the workplace, the level of awareness and engagement around DEI varies a lot across companies. There is still room for improvement across the board. One participant affirmed that, at times, organizations fall short of walking the talk and demonstrating their stated values consistently. Sustainable and continuous efforts for change are necessary to bring about meaningful improvements.
Another participant claimed that organizations should be “more conscious about what they are doing” and implement clear metrics to measure achievements in a tangible way. Using metrics to assess the effectiveness of consciously implemented actions will reduce gaps and demonstrate the importance and value of DEI to the entire workforce and the company. In the end, “it’s about culture and how we see things as a society.”
There have been notable advancements in terms of female representation in board leadership positions in Türkiye. Forty-one companies made the significant step of appointing a female chairperson. It is worth mentioning that 38 of these 41 companies were associated with controlling families or held significant shares in the business, indicating a positive trend toward greater gender diversity within these influential circles. However, out of the 41 appointments, only three professional women were appointed as board chairs, while a staggering 149 professional men assumed these leadership roles.
This disparity highlights the continued need for concerted efforts within the wider ecosystem, including policymakers and the society as whole, to empower and elevate more women to key leadership positions in the business world and beyond.
Addressing the challenges faced by women in leadership roles requires a multifaceted approach.
To overcome gender bias, companies can implement training sessions on unconscious bias. By addressing bias head-on, companies can create a more equitable environment. One concrete step in this direction is embedding diversity in internal policies and processes, such as recruiting, succession planning, and reward systems. For instance, companies can ensure a 50-50 candidate pool for recruiting or promotions and establish processes that help eliminate bias in these areas. Companies should also promote transparent reporting, to encourage open dialogue and reporting mechanisms.
Full commitment and sponsorship at the top levels of management are important. Top management should be actively involved in defining targets, communicating these goals, and ensuring they cascade throughout the organization. Leadership programs that select a handful of individuals for specialized pathways can be designed to ensure a balanced representation of men and women. This helps advance women within the company and changes the mindset of future leadership. An easy first step is for companies to celebrate and publicize the achievements of female leaders within their organization.
Establishing mentorship and scholarship programs will light the way for future generations of women in Türkiye. As highlighted in the interviews, guidance from successful professional figures helped the women leaders in their climb to the top. Many of the women stated that they seek out mentorship programs and look to other women entrepreneurs as role models. However, a large share of the interviewees (almost 50%) said their families—parents, spouses, and children—have inspired and mentored them the most, highlighting a need for more business initiatives.
Eliminating roadblocks will also foster an environment where women can thrive. Companies can offer flexible schedules, remote work, and extended maternity leave. Ensuring pay equity through regular audits and introducing initiatives that provide enhanced support during pregnancy and post-pregnancy are other ways companies can pave the way for women professionals to succeed. More balanced parental leave policies, where men are encouraged to take leave with full pay for a meaningful period without career consequences, can be implemented. Additionally, upon returning to work, support mechanisms like lactation rooms can be provided. Women who receive adequate support during maternity are more likely to return to work and stay in their jobs long term.
Above all, companies should play a leading role in fostering the cultural shift that will transition full diversity and gender equality from a desirable goal into an undeniable fact. Multiple stakeholders should drive this mindset change, which needs to permeate the entire organization, pivoting on three main pillars: recognizing the value of diversity; challenging gender stereotypes; and fostering a culture where inclusivity and equality are the standard.
Strategies for companies to elevate women in leadership
The journey toward gender equality in leadership requires a concerted effort from businesses supported by a robust ecosystem that includes legal frameworks, transparency measures, and a societal shift driven by educational institutions. Here’s a detailed roadmap for companies to champion this cause and some examples coming from the real business world:
Skills development and education. Technology companies are leading the way by offering specialized training programs that equip young women with technical skills, such as software development, and essential soft business skills, including entrepreneurial acumen.
Partner with local schools to enhance career awareness and preparation, ensuring young women are well prepared for future leadership roles.
Financial and professional empowerment. Financial institutions are setting the benchmark by providing microloans and networking opportunities, ensuring women have the foundational support they need at the onset of their careers.
Implement leadership training programs that emphasize the importance of flexible working arrangements, work-life balance, and effective leadership techniques, as large conglomerates have started to do.
Cultivating an inclusive workplace culture. Implement mandatory corporate training sessions that focus on recognizing and countering unconscious bias, ensuring a fair and unbiased work environment.
Adopt and rigorously enforce a company-wide standard that champions equal pay for equal work. Foster collaborations with local, women-owned businesses, thereby promoting female entrepreneurship within the community. Recognize the unique challenges women face during and post-pregnancy by introducing initiatives that provide enhanced support throughout pregnancy and beyond. Promote and normalize flexible work arrangements and offer family-friendly benefits.
Leadership and representation. Actively track and aim to improve metrics related to female leadership, ensuring transparency and accountability, and regularly host programs tailored to nurture and grow women’s leadership skills, ensuring they are well equipped for long-term success.
For larger organizations, it’s imperative to establish quotas for women on boards of directors, ensuring adequate representation and setting a standard for others to emulate.
Legal and societal advocacy. Advocate for legal structures that bolster female leadership metrics and promote gender equality in leadership roles. Engage in community outreach and collaboration with educational institutions to drive a cultural change, emphasizing the importance of gender equality from a grassroots level.
By actively integrating these strategies, companies can create a more inclusive environment and harness the diverse perspectives and skills that women bring to leadership roles, driving innovation and growth.
Becoming a female leader in Türkiye is an achievable reality. Women have already recorded remarkable success, and this trend is set to continue. Their resilience, determination, ambition, and outstanding capabilities have enabled them to thrive as leaders in diverse fields.
The road to success for women is open but still full of challenges and trials. Here is some advice for the journey shared by the women leaders we interviewed: “Push through and persevere”; “focus on what you want, always keeping your promises”; “go everywhere, into every room with confidence”; “never give up, and be true to what you really are”; “follow your passion”; “never stop learning and improving.”
To ensure a bright future, it’s essential for society to increase awareness of and provide an unwavering commitment to the principles of diversity and inclusion. By fostering an environment that values and empowers women, provides equal opportunities, and breaks down barriers, Türkiye can pave the way for a new era of progress, where women’s leadership potential is fully realized and their contributions are celebrated. The untapped potential of women in Türkiye will undoubtedly lead to even greater achievements and positive transformations across the professional landscape.