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For Turkey, more women on boards means little

A new report out today from Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women in the workplace, finds that women across the globe are gaining seats on corporate boards. The results are encouraging, but look beyond the Catalyst results and you’ll see that gender dynamics in some countries that have been lauded are, in fact, not so good.

Turkey provides a prime example of how misleading it is to view boardroom diversity as the sole barometer of equal opportunities for women. Although Turkey was not included in Catalyst’s report on 20 countries’ boardroom diversity, a similar report released on Monday by the International Labor Organization surveyed 44 countries on the gender makeup of their corporate boards. Turkey came out of the report as an apparent winner. Aside from Norway, which enacted gender quotas for corporate boards in 2003, Turkey had the highest percentage of female chairpersons; 11.1% of the country’s chairman roles are occupied by women. Turkey is also among the top 15 countries in the world with the most women sitting on boards overall.

These stats make Turkey seem like a leader in the global fight for gender equality. But when the World Economic Forum rated 142 countries on gender equality and the opportunity gap between genders, Turkey ranked 125. When it comes to labor force participation as well as women holding management positions both in the public and private sector, Turkey lags significantly behind most of its European peers. In Sweden, for example, 60% of women participated in the labor force in 2013. With a 29% female labor participation rate, Turkey ranks closer to countries like India and Morocco.

Despite efforts by the Turkish government to invest in the country’s female business leaders, progress has significant cultural barriers to mount. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brought the country’s gender problems into sharp focus when he said last year that women are not equal to men because of their “delicate natures.”

“In Turkey, we are left alone with lots of demotivation by people around us,” Bedriye Hülya, a business owner in Turkey, told Fortune in November. “Especially as women, we continuously have to face explicit and implicit negativity.”

Dig beyond the boardroom numbers in other countries and the findings are less dramatic, but similarly gloomy. In Norway, for example, a mandate to bring more women into the boardroom has not translated into more women in leadership positions further down the pipeline. While measuring progress (or lack thereof) in gender composition at a boardroom level is necessary, its by no means an accurate metric of progress toward gender equality at all levels of global corporations.

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Katherine Noyes contributed reporting to this piece.