Inspirational female leaders: Cansen Basaran Symes

Cansen Basaran-Symes is the senior partner of PwC in Turkey. With offices in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa, the firm employs 937 people, of whom almost half are female. Nineteen percent of its partners are women.

There are a number of obstacles to being a mother and pursuing a career in Turkey, which is one of the reasons why the country’s female labour force participation rate is very low at 25.6 percent compared with 71 percent for males. The gender gap narrows for those with higher education where participation stands at 71.3 percent compared with 83.8 percent for males.

In the accounting profession, women account for 16 percent of independent accountants and 18 percent of CPAs. Although an improved investment climate and economic expansion have provided greater opportunities for qualified personnel including women, obstacles remain: there is virtually no childcare provision for children under three years of age and limited facilities for the under six-year olds.

Even in the private sector, childcare facilities are expensive and not geared to working mothers’ schedules. Firms employing more than 150 women are legally obliged to provide nursing rooms and childcare; however, few firms fall within this category and non-compliance is widespread. In terms of maternity leave, women are entitled to 16 weeks, with 12 weeks at two thirds of pay.

Although they can request an extra six months unpaid leave, they aren’t guaranteed their job back at the end of that period. Furthermore, flexible working is not viewed as popular and although employment laws are generally gender-neutral, there is no legislation aimed at actively promoting female employment.

Cansen's story: Early exposure to new experiences

I joined Price Waterhouse in 1981 in Istanbul, straight from university. It made a huge difference to my career that I was one of the first (out of seven) Turkish students recruited by the firm. I feel that my career has been gender neutral and that I have succeeded because I was one of the first qualified accountants in Turkey.

I started work as an audit assistant. We were such a small office that I got involved in lots of projects. At that time, we were part of Price Waterhouse Europe, so I met colleagues from many countries from day one and most of my training was international in flavour.

I became a partner at the age of 30. It was an accelerated path because I had access to so many opportunities. It was a different world and a different time. I worked with very senior people even before I became a partner. There’s a lesson to be learned from exposing our junior people to both these experiences and to senior people at a relatively early stage of their career. You can learn so much from being exposed to new things and new people.

Being true to yourself

Many women are not themselves at work, they are scared to be in case they are assessed as being too “emotional”—as if this were a bad thing to be. Women often try to dress like and behave as men. They shouldn’t hide the fact that they are female. Differentiate yourself by virtue of the fact that you are female.

Finding a balance that works for you

My advice to other women is to act naturally—be yourself. Remain relaxed. Don’t be shy.

If you’re serious about your career, be prepared to spend your salary on providing structure, support and help at home. You need a proper system—it's an investment in your career. I have a son and have always spent a lot of money on my nanny, but it’s worth every penny.

Don’t become unhappy and bitter about the choices you’ve made. And don’t sacrifice your social life. This will make you resent your job. It’s not worth it. Seek a balance in your life and find what works for you.