But regardless of all the difficulties, women still see gainful employment as an essential part of their life plans. Somewhat cryptic attempts to hold this attitude against them – by portraying it as a kind of transgression against the interests of society as a whole – are met with outrage. For example, the Commission for the Future Development of the Free States of Bavaria and Saxony declared: “The high level of gainful employment of women is yet another reason for the higher unemployment rates in Eastern Germany. If the rate of women’s employment were the same in East and West, then there would be no difference in the proportion of unemployed.” In short: Mothers, stay home with your children.
Developments in the West, however, also run counter to such a trend; there, the share of employed women has clearly grown in recent decades. The number of those returning to the workplace after taking a “maternity break” increased fourfold between 1984 and 1992. Sixty-eight percent of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in the East and 53 percent in the West believe that a woman should interrupt her career only for the duration of her maternity leave. The higher the qualifications, the greater the professional ambitions. In this regard, women from East Germany have a clear lead: in 1989 only 12.3 percent of all female employees in the GDR had not completed vocational training; in the West the percentage was twice as high.
It is no wonder that in the East, especially, many women over fifty have little enthusiasm for the market economy. Their knowledge and experience are no longer in demand, and they feel like the losers [of unification] with good reason. Almost 80 percent of the unemployed believe that above all their social security has worsened since the political upheaval of 1989. This opinion is also widespread among the gainfully employed.
East German journalist Dorotea Lieber, an active member of the League of Women Journalists [Journalistinnenbund] and the National Council of German Women’s Associations [Deutscher Frauenrat], probably echoes the sentiments of a lot of women when she says that the social environment in the GDR kept men from “acting macho.” Today they can “do that without a care, since they think they have to adapt to a new role model.” Ms. Lieber does not believe that women in the East “have more equality” than those in the West, “but their attitude about occupations and economic independence from men was more self-evident and self-assured.”
This experience continues to have an impact, as do the various policies on women and the family. In the GDR, work outside of the home was pushed and favored, whereas in the Federal Republic women’s formal freedom to decide was and still is limited by unsatisfactory conditions [which make it difficult to combine work and family]. Accordingly, 70 percent of women in the East consider it ideal to combine motherhood and full-time employment. Only 16 percent in the West feel this way, whereas 51 percent orient themselves toward family responsibilities and part-time jobs. In the younger generation, there are clearly tendencies towards a more equal sharing of responsibilities. How things continue to develop will depend on the extent to which policies on gender equality – which have already led to some progress – set new standards.
“We women from the East,” says Kerstin Riehle, equal opportunity commissioner in Görlitz since 1990, “have the advantage of being able to compare two different systems, past and present. And some things that are considered visions here … we really did experience them.” But the price was high. Working around the clock, people had no time to think about their situation and women’s role. Today the idea is to “sell yourself better.” “After all, we have something to offer.”
“Many women from the new federal states are well-trained and have bettered themselves by constantly improving their qualifications. The companies should tap these resources of knowledge and experience rather than letting them degenerate. Since we always had to combine career, children, and the household, we’re perfect organizers.”
Source: Gisela Helwig, “Perfekte Organisatorinnen” [“The Perfect Organizers”], Das Parlament, nos. 43-44 (October 22/29, 1999), p. 14.
Translation: Allison Brown