08 Mar 2021

Women’s workload increased during the pandemic

Istanbul Technical University is celebrating March 8 International Women’s Day with a series of activities organized over digital media. The inspiring stories of Sabiha Rıfat Gürayman and Melek Erbul, two of Turkey’s first women engineers who successfully graduated from the School of Senior Engineering in 1933, are just a few of these. As ITUNews, we made an interview with Prof. Dr. Leman Figen Gül, Director of ITU Women’s Studies Center in Science, Engineering and Technology (WSC in SET) and Faculty of Architecture faculty member, on this special day that symbolizes the struggle for women’s rights. We would like to thank our distinguished academic for answering our questions sincerely.

News: İTÜ Media and Communication Office

There is a significant improvement in the positioning of women in social and political life in the whole world during the last fifty-sixty years… Looking from today, are women in the world and in our country at a desirable point in terms of social rights?

Social rights cover all areas that we think are necessary for participating in social life, from education to family life, from adequate and safe nutrition to health services… Although developments in the world that you also mentioned are at a certain level in developed countries in the context of “social policies,” it is not possible to talk about a desirable level of social life or social welfare in developing countries of the world. Unfortunately, in such countries not only women but vulnerable layers of society including the elderly, disabled and children can be deprived of the most basic human rights they should have as individuals in a society.

In Turkey, all these issues, human rights and social rights are of course taken under state guarantee through laws. Especially within the framework of social policies, improvements have been made to legislations and mechanisms are implemented in this direction as the requirement of being a welfare state. However, facts written in legislations may not have a counterpart in social life. It can sometimes be perceived that the social existence of women is nothing more than the duties they undertake (or are burdened with) within the family and that their primary duty is domestic caretaking. Our women often have difficulty in finding a balance between family, social life and working life. In my opinion, woman’s employment and the existence of women in economic and political life should be supported. I mean the issue should be handled as a whole, not only within the framework of social rights. We need more of the successful, visible women who can be role models and leaders in social life, socio-economic and political life. For example let’s look at the political arena… Turkish women who entered the parliament first in 1935 with a representation rate of 4.6% can still not be included in the “men’s club” even after 86 years, our representation rate remains at 17.4%. We need more women in leading positions and active roles in every area from economy to politics, from science to technology; only in this way can we talk about a change that spreads to every segment of society.

In connection with this question; opinions, thoughts, intentions, action plans and even laws often beyond our time at a theoretical level about the participation of women in every area of life come out. However, when we look at the practice, it is seen that all these remain in abeyance at some point. There is probably a problem in internalizing and adopting all of these… What can be done to realize this mentality change?

We definitely need a total mentality change, you are right. There is a male-dominant mentality in society in general, and especially in working life. Unfortunately mentality change is not something that will occur in one day. It is related to values, attitudes, preconceptions, rights and wrongs and lifestyles that have been formed in society over the years. Look at our language, for example; masculine and feminine sexist expressions we use without being aware reflect this best. We use them within the culture and traditions of the society we live in without being aware, we otherize without being aware. For example, “woman member of parliament”, “woman driver”, “woman engineer”; why are these professions mentioned together with feminine expressions? We see such expressions in mass media frequently, they must be finding this striking. Needless to mention many offensive expressions we use in our language. The whole society has a duty at this point, let's face ourselves, let's try to stay away from these masculine/feminine phrases and the language that otherizes while raising our children.

Then again, mass media and popular culture products, series, films can transform the perception about women by approaching the patriarchal perspective critically, this way they can support mentality change. It is necessary to get out of the stereotypes of strong, leading man and weak woman in need of protection. What we can do as individuals at this point is not to be a buyer of this material. Commodification of the female body in the media and popular culture products is an issue that needs to be equally criticized. In this context, we as ITU WSC in SET try to create awareness on the woman problem; we address women’s problems within the framework of gender with our successful women who are experts in the subject; we organize seminars, talks.

We observe that violence against women increased in recent years. What do you think is the reason for this?

We know that there has been an increase in domestic violence in the last year with the effect of the pandemic. A tension may arise within the family as a result of women being more active in economic and social life and the evolution of traditional roles in domestic life with modernization. While in the past many women were not even aware that the behavior they were exposed to was violence, they are now more conscious. The press is sensitive in this subject, they keep news on violence against women on the agenda, we hear more and see more.

In general we unfortunately encounter violence in the whole world, in every country from the most developed to the least developed, in every segment of society from the educated to the uneducated. We may be exposed to violence starting from childhood. According to 2019 World Health Organization report on violence, one in four adults worldwide were exposed to physical violence in their childhood, regardless of gender. Also, according to the same report, one in five adults in women and one in thirteen adults in men were sexually abused when they were children. Violence is a problem that must be struggled with as a general phenomenon; individuals who have been subjected to violence as a child inflict violence when they become an adult.

As for violence against women, we see an acceleration in the struggle with the increase in women’s organizing in the 90’s. Women started to become more conscious. There are various kinds of violence: physical, psychological, economical, digital, etc. Before, it was widely believed that violence was a subject that should remain within the family. We know that women remained silent because of the embarrassment of violence, there are academic studies that identify this situation. Together with the 2000’s, there has been a consensus that violence against women is a crime and violation of human rights, concrete steps are being taken to protect women who are subject to violence through various protective mechanisms by the state or volunteer organizations. There are positive approaches within the framework of the Action Plan for Combating Violence against Women of the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services, but time will show how much of the goals set here are feasible and practical.

At this point, again, a total mentality change is necessary, law enforcement officers need to undertake a long-term and rapid process management task in preventing violence. Most of the time victims of violence seek help at different stages, but as we have seen from the events covered in the press, there may be various difficulties in rapid response and sometimes in understanding the seriousness of the threat.

In all areas where men are dominant, in business world, politics, sports and so on, women also began to stand out significantly. As a female academic, how do you evaluate this situation?

It is very important that successful women who can be role models be visible and tell their success stories. Instead of advising our young girls that they can be successful in every area, their getting to know people who have succeeded and hearing these stories from them makes a more lasting effect.


What effect did the pandemic period we have been going through for the last year have on women in psychological and sociological sense? For example did their workload increase? Or is it possible that men’s awareness has increased during the time we have been locked down at homes?

Various research reports were published on this subject. According to the findings of Research on the Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Employees carried out with the collaboration of TÜSİAD, TÜRKONFED and UN Women Turkey and the participation of 339 companies, it was determined that three issues stood out for women employees during the Covid-19 period: The first is the increasing housework and caretaking responsibilities with 99%, the second is the increasing workload due to distance/home working with 97%, and the third is the feeling of anxiety, psychological stress and burnout with 95%. UN Women also announced reports that there is an increase in inequalities and women are at risk of losing their acquired rights.

Based on my own observations, I can say that as an academic there is an increase in our workload, and an expectation to be accessible at all times. Online meetings have become common during evening hours or weekend curfews, outside the usual working days and hours. This requires us to work more than usual. Besides, even though I observe that men try to contribute to housekeeping tasks more than ever, still it is not wrong to conclude that the burden on women has increased more.

In fact women are taking steps that make a difference in every area around the world. If I ask you women who make a difference in technology, who can you name?

Last year we held our March 8 event with the theme of women who make a difference in technology, this is a quite hot topic. Currently there are pioneer women at MIT Media Lab, whom I follow, but my favorites are historical figures… Considering the socio-economic conditions of women at the period they lived in, they are women who have guided today’s technology world with their inventions. Especially Ada Lovelace from the 18th century and Grace Hopper from the 20th century, who made important contributions to computer science with their work, as they are also related to my field of study… I find them both very inspiring.

Women entrepreneurs started to become prominent in our country.  We started to see successful women entrepreneurs more in every area. What do you attribute this to?

Entrepreneurship and encouragement of young and woman entrepreneurs is on the agenda of NGO’s and the private sector as well as the public sector; educational activities, grant and support programs and tax deductions are implemented. The entrepreneurship ecosystem is developing, there is positive discrimination for women and young people. In this case, of course, it offers a positive environment for women who have a good idea but a small capital and do not know where to start.

As an academic of ITU, what advice would you give to young women scientists?

As an architect academic, I can give advice on the field of architecture. First of all, it is necessary to love the profession, to follow all kinds of socio-economic and cultural dynamics of the society, to keep your perception open with a broad view. I can advise my students not to stay within the molds cast for them and to constantly strive to improve themselves. Architects have a mission to touch human life, I find this valuable.


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