Female Academics as Superwomen during the Covid-19 Lockdown in Turkey

Bilge Durutürk - Turkey

Born in Beyoglu , Turkey in 1985, she completed my PhD in Political Science at Hacettepe University, Turkey in 2018. Her thesis entitled Intersectionality, Politics Of Identity And Gender: Civil Society Organizations In France was a quantitative analysis of the perception of CSOs advocating women rights in France through intersectionality. The latter stresses the links between  religion, migration and the scarf/veil  issue in France. She is currently researching and lecturing at the International Relations department of Adana Alparslan Turkes Science and Technology University

I have been part of a team which undertook a quantitative study from March 10, until June 1, 2020 to find out how working and highly educated women deal with the social expectations of being a woman in Turkey during the Covid-19 crisis which has generated enforced intertwining between home and work

A questionnaire was sent to 600 female academics, of which 231 were returned. 71.4% of the participants are at PhD level, 13% are aged between 18-30 years old, 46.8%  between 31 and 40, 29.9% between 41 and 50 and only 10%, (4) over 51. The fact that 75.3% of the participants are married indicates that they were in a family environment during the Covid-19 lockdown . 98%  worked from home or with flexible hours. Likewise, 39% of the participants' children were not present at all, 32.5% having one child and 25.1% having two.

These women all work in the field of social sciences at twenty-five different state universities, in seven different regions of Turkey. They have an income, most are married, and live in a family with or without children and were selected for the study because they are assumed to be a group with a relatively high awareness of women's inferior place in society. The Likert analysis method[1] was used to measure the balance between the responsibilities of being a wife and/or mother and those of being an academic in today's new normal under the lockdown where both set of activities are carried on in the same space, namely home. These are the conclusions taken from an extensive quantitative analysis, the actual research with statistics being published elsewhere.

The personal crisis that seems to have occurred in all these respondents' lives was due to the fact that the expectations of society concerning women did not change, but the area of awareness normally created by the spatial difference between the two roles disappeared. In other words, the place of the wife/mother in the home has no correlation to her professional existence, however high her status may be.

We demonstrated that women's experiences of the lockdown when living in a domestic set-up is a very different process from that of men in the same class and society, regardless of whether she has undertaken all motherhood and other household responsibilities in the home or her husband is in a position to help her. The fact that she has achieved economic autonomy does not seem to have changed the gendered balance of power.

Unlike for men, being a woman with multiple social roles becomes more complicated with the unification of public and private lives in one single space where priorities have remained gendered. Women who have gained a space for themselves in their professional public life appear to suffer from a predetermined balance of power at home, in their private domain.

Transformation of the Role and Position of Women in Turkey

At the founding of the Republic of Turkey, modernization was primarily perceived as Westernization, more or less adapted to the structure of the existing society.[3] In the process of building a new "Turkish nation”, a Western notion of progress was stressed that included totally new roles for women henceforth entrusted with the mission of educating the next generation.[4]

Political scientist Serpil Sancar has stated that in Turkey, women build families and men build countries. Being a good mother and a good wife ultimately has remained the primary role of women.[5] This has been an adaptation of modernization imported into the country by Atatürk. The second important role of women was that of showcasing the Turkish Republic's modernity, through education, dress and a visible place in the public space working a top-down change to prove it was a modern nation-state. Therefore, women's emancipation needed to be performed in the public sphere, although the organic bond with the private sphere was never completely broken. The best example of this situation is that teaching was considered as the ideal wife/mother profession for the respectable transition into the public sphere, becoming an academic considered just an upgrade.

The Second Wave of the liberal feminist movement pushed for the "superwoman" stereotype with economic freedom. "Qualified" as a mother and wife in the private sphere, she was now presented with an opportunity to prove herself in the public sphere, on the basis of supposed gender equality. However, this superwoman status was actually a collection of responsibilities under which women were crushed due to their multiple roles in society.[6]Today, women still have to exist both in the private space (home) and in the public space (work) to define themselves. But the superwoman trap has not really changed the patriarchal cultural codes that produce the gendered power balance in the private and public sectors.


Practically all the participants worked from home (teaching remotely) or outside with flexible hours during the lockdown period. Most of them said their academic work schedule was drastically reduced to an average of 3 to 5 hours a day. They emphasized that they could not get full efficiency in this period of time allocated for study, because they were constantly distracted.

The participants who worked in public spaces mainly left home between seven and nine in the morning, and usually went to bed between midnight and two in the morning, the intervening time at home filled with domestic chores and caring for family members. This meant sacrificing their biological needs such as sleep and the time they allocate for themselves which they described as occurring "after everyone goes to bed at night".

When it came to evaluating their feelings of pressure as a mother, a wife and a working individual, they expressed difficulties in succeeding in both their work and private lives while society expected them to achieve high standards all the time, even during the lockdown. It became evident that they had internalized the pressure of being "superwomen" even in these unusual circumstances, something which was reflected in their frustration and exhaustion

A group of 6.9% considered themselves competent in both their relationship and career, but they wanted their spouse to help more; a group of 9.5%, on the other hand, did not want their spouse to help but wanted to share the housework with them. Sharing responsibilities at home means the division of labor between two people, meaning equality and living together; helping the spouse, on the other hand, means that the responsibility for the house is on one side and the other side just assists.

The conclusion of this research after considering the answers to the questionnaires was that despite both partners being at home during lockdown, women remained responsible for housework, as per usual: despite the awareness of this excessive burden and the need for equal sharing, the situation was considered unchangeable and therefore accepted as such. "At least he helps, it is better than nothing" was a recurring statement. Before data collection, we predicted that during the lockdown period both men and women working from home might lead to the formation of a new normal and perhaps bring about steps towards equality in sharing the roles and responsibilities at home. Yet the opposite happened and we witnessed the reproduction of gender roles attributed to the standard positions of women and men in society, with women carrying the bulk of responsibility for the home even if she now worked from their shared domestic space. Neither of the spouses attempted to change the balance with an aim to achieve equality, whatever the degree of education of the woman.

We tested the statement "Men are not skilled at doing housework like laundry, washing, and house cleaning." Most women disagreed with this but a substantial number considered that housework was more suitable for women. It is the particular lockdown situation which may have brought about questioning and criticism of the advantageous position of men. However, the traditional mission attributed to the woman in the first part of the study, as both a good mother and a good wife, seems to have been internalized.

Another dilemma emerged regarding the conflict between wife and mother applies to working women. The emphasis on being a superwoman is closely related to being a super mother figure, so motherhood was considered more important than the handling of private, intimate space as a wife. Thus maternal tasks concerning the care of children were less questioned, and sharing them with spouses was not demanded, showing that mothers' responsibility for children was both normalized and internalized

Concluding remarks

The Covid-19 outbreak in Turkey, as well as all over the world, has led to the change of social norms in our public and private spheres. The lockdown period has affected everyone's life by touching on working conditions, family, relationships. This study attempts to understand what kind of gender inequality awareness, questioning and insights female academics have achieved while working from home during this enforced experience.

The quantitative data analyzed showed that although these women show a tendency to question the social acceptance and codes of gender inequality, they also feel the need to carry out the expectations of the codes attributed to them by women and to fulfill the domestic role imposed on them. While this situation is experienced in the home (private sphere) where being a mother, wife and an academic begin to coexist, the patriarchal domination that the male spouse and/or, in some cases the father have established based on conventional social codes is quite clearly understood.

As a result, this study showed that Covid-19 which could have been an opportunity to cause an earthquake of self-awareness for female academics concerning their roles revealed that in Turkey this was far from being the case. We found that the lockdown process caused some stereotypes and even stereotypical situations in terms of gender inequality to turn gangrenous as a result of spatial compression. Feminist demands for equality between men and women in the public and professional sphere somehow collapsed in the lockdown environment where the private and public live together. Here the oppression of women as dominated in a subaltern situation, form the main resulting data of this study. A woman, who currently positions herself in a secondary position in the private sphere against husband and father, experiences multi-leveled difficulties functioning from home.

It is in the area of work away from home that she has more energy and presumably recognition Two expressions frequently used by the pilot participants during the study conducted prior to the survey study summarize what they really need and want: “Now I want to go to work and rest” and “The days I go to work are much quieter and less tiring than the dayswhen I work flexibly from home”. "In the normal working order, I was only responsible for breakfast and dinner, now all the family members are at home and I have to make lunch, I'm always in the kitchen." As it can be understood from these statements, the position of the woman in the family does not create any change in the distribution of responsibilities between partners, regardless of whether the husband/father is at home or even the mother/wife intervenes in the public sphere.

As a result, the superwoman image of the second wave of the feminist movement in Turkey is still alive, but the motto ("We can do it") may well be possible for women under one condition and that condition is a job that takes place outside their own private sphere.

[1] The Likert method is a quantitative data analysis method that is made by grading the judgment sentences prepared about the subject to be analyzed as strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree and strongly agree by the participant  [3] Ahmad, Feroz (2015). Modern Türkiye’nin Oluşumu. Kaynak Yayınları: Istanbul

[4] Kandiyoti, Deniz (2013). Cariyeler, Bacılar, Yurttaşlar: Kimlikler ve Toplumsal Dönüşümler. Metis Yayınları: Istanbul.

[5] Sancar, Serpil (2014). Türk Modernleşmesinin Cinsiyeti: Erkekler Devlet, Kadınlar Aile Kurar. İletişim Yayınları: İstanbul.

[6] Superwoman debates are a phenomenon that is supported or opposed within the women's movement and is still debated today. For detailed information, see: Tong, Rosemarie (1998) Feminist Thought: a more comprehensive introduction; Friedan, Betty (1963) The Feminine Mystique Friedan, Betty (1981) The Second Stage..