Women in work: how East Germany’s socialist past has influenced West German mothers

The general feeling when Germany was reunited thirty years ago was one of hope. Both parts of Germany felt a breeze of change. The German Democratic Republic (GDR), which had been part of West Germany, became a part of the Federal German Republic with the reunification.

Early Public Debate was largely focused on the transformation of the socialist GDR to a democratic country and the transition from a planned economy to a free-market economy. People did not consider how the division of more than 40 years had affected society’s core – its social norms and culture – or how reunification might impact this culture and economic behavior.

The cultural differences between east-west Germany still exist. East and West Germans vote differently. The discussion focuses on certain artistic effects of reunification, but mainly the impact of West Germany in the East. For example, there has been a rise in the average age of marriage and first childbirth (East German women had young children and married very early, but the trend has now changed).

The cultural shifts that occur in the opposite direction are not as well-known. To help correct this, we have been investigating the changing habits of women working in the East and West over the past 30 years.

East Germany, as a socialist state, encouraged mothers to work full-time. West Germany, on the other hand, promoted a traditional model of male breadwinners. In 1989, 89% of GDR women worked. For the time, this was among the highest rates of employment in the world. In West Germany, 56% of women worked.

In 1949, the GDR gave women equal pay and the right to work. Homemakers were devalued ideologically: Non-working mothers were referred to as Schmarotzer. The GDR introduced a generous policy of maternity leave at the same time.

West Germany’s tax and benefit system, however, discouraged families with two incomes. The school schedules are short and usually end around lunchtime. Childcare centers are scarce. In West Germany, the jargon was more traditional in terms of gender roles. For example, rabenmutter is a term that derogates working mothers and literally means “raven mother.” fremdbetreuung refers to daycare centers.

The two cultures came together after reunification. Through migration and commuters, there was an increase in social interaction between East and West Germans. Even after decades of being exposed to West German culture, women from East Germany continue to behave in accordance with the gender norms that they were raised with.

West German women are not affected by the same phenomenon. In a recent Working Paper, we demonstrate that through migration, East German culture has spread westward and influenced the work culture of West German mothers.

German division

We still see differences between East and West German women’s return to work-decisions decades after the reunification. Social security records reveal that many East German mothers return to work one year after the birth of their child. This is in line with mothers of the former GDR who were given a paid “baby-year” maternity leave.

West Germans return later. They often do so only after three or four years. This is when the job protection ends. West German mothers also tend to work fewer hours.

These differences are reflected in large differences in earnings: Seven years after their first birth, West German women only recover 45% of the profits they had before the birth. At the same time, East Germans receive 70% — similar to mothers from the US and Sweden.

It is interesting to note that East German culture has survived longer than West German. Even after many years of living in West Germany, East German migrants still adhere to the values and beliefs they learned in their childhood. They continue to act and behave in a way that is consistent with their East German upbringing. According to the research, for women who were raised in a gender-equal culture, their childhood values and beliefs are more influential (68%) than their current cultural environment.

West German mothers who live in East Germany adopt the norms and values of their cultural environment and adapt their post-birth work to that of East German colleagues. This is true even when the women return to West Germany, where they will give birth in their gender-traditional environment.

Cultural Change

In many countries, it is now more common for mothers to be employed. In our paper, we show that women of traditional cultures and those with more egalitarian gender roles can accelerate cultural change.

Our research shows how migration from East to West German workplaces brought about cultural changes in West German homes and impacted West German mothers who have never been outside their home area. West German mothers working in West German companies with a high inflow of East Germans following reunification were more likely to return to work than West German women who did not. In addition, the large influx of East Germans post-1990 appears to have made West German work environments more family-friendly.

East German women’s culture has a long-lasting legacy, even though East Germany adopted West German institutions. East German women born into a more gender-equal culture behave in the same way decades after the fall.

After 1990, East German culture traveled westward and changed the workplace norms of West Germans that interacted with East Germans. Since Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005, Germany introduced a generous one-year maternity leave that includes two months for the father.

A lot of money has been invested in expanding universal child care to include all children under the age of three. The recent improvements in family policies, which are strikingly similar to those in the former GDR, will likely increase the convergence of norms and behavior in the labor market of East and West German women who were born after the fall.