East Germany’s gender legacy: Do its women workers have an edge?

Women from the former East Germany are in many ways doing even better than men since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

East and West Berlin women embracing, 1999
A woman from East Berlin embraces one from West Berlin at a German border checkpoint on November 10, 1999 - the day after the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago this week [File: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch]

When the Berlin Wall fell, the economy in East Germany all but collapsed, and women often lost their jobs before men. Yet the legacy of East Germany’s gender and labour market dynamics – and the remarkable pragmatism and flexibility with which women adapted to their new circumstances – helped many women overcome these setbacks.

Thirty years later, women from the former East Germany are in many ways doing even better than men, and a few have achieved remarkable success in politics and business.

A February 2019 study by Leipzig University showed that although East Germans are still underrepresented when it comes to the top positions in Germany, it is often East German women who hold prime jobs. Women occupied around 50 percent of the total senior positions held by East Germans – significantly more than the portion of senior positions held by women among West Germans.

Of the 17 East Germans who have been ministers in Germany‘s federal government since 1991, 10 have been women – including Chancellor Angela Merkel. Of 11 East Germans who have been party leaders during the same period, eight have been women.

When it comes to business, a similar pattern prevails. Of the 193 board members of Germany’s top 30 DAX-listed firms, four in early 2019 were East Germans and three were women (one has subsequently left her position).

While this is only a tiny elite, it still reflects a remarkable achievement, illustrating the resilience that East German women showed when faced with the enormous upheaval of three decades ago.

East German women: Unique challenges

During Germany’s 1990 reunification, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised “blooming landscapes”. Instead, with East Germany’s state-owned companies unable to compete in the new capitalist market, there was an almost complete collapse of industry. The ensuing job losses affected women disproportionately. By 1997, government figures show, the unemployment rate for women in the former East Germany was 22.5 percent, compared with 16.6 percent for men.

One reason was that the West German managerial class often regarded certain jobs as reserved for men, who they also saw as breadwinners.

After reunification, men from West Germany “were coming in hordes to East Germany to establish a Western-style capitalist economic system,” says Anke Domscheit-Berg, a former management consultant who is now a lawmaker and a spokesperson on internet policy for the left-wing Die Linke party. “They came with their cultural perceptions and frameworks.”

Many young East German women responded by going where the jobs were – westward. A 2008 study showed the population of the former East Germany had declined 10 percent since reunification – and 55 percent of those who left were women. Among people aged 18 to 24 who left, 65 percent were female.

East German women had been used to working – and many wanted to continue doing so.

East Germany’s high female labour market participation had been due to manpower needs that required most women to work full time – a phenomenon facilitated by excellent childcare infrastructure. “In West Germany, it was different, ” says Michaela Fuchs, an economist with the Institute for Employment Research. “[There] it was self-evident that the women stayed at home.”

There are many things one can learn from East Germany without wanting the system back.

by Anke Domscheit-Berg, Germany's left-wing Die Linke party

While West German mothers who worked were often derided as “rabenmutters” or “raven mothers” who neglected their young, East German women who didn’t want to work at all were regarded with suspicion.

One such woman was Anna Kaminsky, who decided not to work when her children were very young. She says that in her native East Germany before reunification, women like her were portrayed as “backward and unemancipated”.

East German women’s lives were “primarily defined by work,” says Kaminsky, who is now executive director of the federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany.

Though women were expected to work, says Kaminsky, they were nonetheless also expected to manage the household and take primary responsibility for children.

As a result, women were financially independent, skilled at juggling multiple demands, and “able to adapt to the changed situation much more quickly than the men,” Kaminsky says.

East vs West German women

Although there has been significant convergence between East and West Germans over the past 30 years, women in the East still tend to work full time more often – and return to work faster after childbearing.

“The current generation has also taken on the role expectations of their mothers,” says Katharina Wrohlich, head of Gender Economics at the German Institute for Economic Research.

Just as East German women’s higher labour-force participation is related to their mothers’ legacy, it is also a matter of infrastructure. Although conditions have improved greatly in the West, women in the East today still have much better access to daycare and afterschool programmes for their children.

This in turn plays a role in the gender pay gap, which is 21 percent for Germany as a whole (and one of the widest in Europe) – but only seven percent in the former East Germany.

In some East German regions today, women are earning more on average than men. Fuchs’s research shows that in West Germany’s Bodenseekreis region, men earn on average 41.4 percent more than women, but in the East German city of Cottbus, women command 4.3 percent more than men.

Differences in regional industries do play a part in this. In the Bodenseekreis, Fuchs explains, there are plenty of companies offering positions in traditionally male-dominated areas such as machine-building and operating. “In Cottbus,” she says, “it is just the opposite, and there is very little industry.”

East Germany’s comparative lack of manufacturing, Fuchs explains, means men don’t have access to as many opportunities as those in the West. The high gap in the West is also skewed by the presence of extremely highly paid men such as the CEOs of top firms like BMW and Siemens.

East-West gender discrepancies are also evident in the tax system. Unified Germany’s so-called “Ehegattensplitting”, which treats the married couple as one unit for tax purposes, is based on an old West German model favouring couples where one earns significantly more than the other – and is very different from the system in place in East Germany before reunification.

To this day, unmarried couples and single parents are more prevalent in eastern Germany, where marriage as an institution has not been particularly valued and where 23 percent of children live with one parent, compared to 16 percent in the West.

Attitudes toward marriage and family are so different in the two regions that a longtime West German law (one scrapped in 1998) gave the state joint guardianship of a child if the father was not named on the birth certificate – and that regulation was never enforced in East Germany upon reunification.

Domscheit-Berg says that this – along with the rollback on abortion rights after reunification – shows that in some aspects, gender equality was actually stronger in the former East.

“There are many things one can learn from East Germany,” she says, “without wanting the system back.”