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Are Women the Losers of Unification? (October 1999)

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author – long-time editor of the periodical Deutschland Archiv – analyzes the present situation of women in the new federal states. She compares their situation with that of women in the former GDR and in West Germany, and explains why many women today feel like the losers of unification.

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The Perfect Organizers

“We’re the losers of unification,” says Ursula H., 56, and no one contradicts her. In the northern Saxon town of Lauta, twenty women get together every four weeks in a self-help group for the unemployed. They used to work together in the cable works that shut down in 1991. The prospects are dismal. The few other large companies that existed here in GDR times were closed down as well. Only one out of every ten women formerly employed by the cable works has found a steady job again. The rest of them are trying to bridge the gap until retirement – for some of them, more than ten years – with positions generated by [government-sponsored, temporary] job-creation measures. Once these jobs run out, they are again entitled to full unemployment benefits [Arbeitslosengeld], and the downward slide to unemployment assistance [Arbeitslosenhilfe], which offers significantly lower benefits, is at least postponed.

The unemployment rate for women in the East German federal states has been double that for men for years. Almost three-quarters of the long-term unemployed are women. This is partly due to the fact that many companies that used to employ mostly women fell by the wayside during the economic transformation process. Also, there is very severe, cut-throat competition. According to figures from the Nuremberg Institute for Employment Research [Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung], between 1991 and 1995, men in the service sector gained a total of 114,000 jobs while women lost 50,000. East German sociologist Sabine Schenk noted the following corresponding “developments”: “Branches that used to be female-dominated are becoming mixed branches (trade, banking/insurance, other service sectors). Mixed branches are becoming largely male-dominated branches (other manufacturing industries, agriculture). Traditionally male branches are remaining closed to women.”

Men Favored

This assessment is supported by the fact that female youths are extremely disadvantaged when it comes to training positions in Eastern Germany. Accordingly, one can see that many plant managers clearly rate female employees below their male counterparts. Men are generally favored in hiring. We need to inquire about the extent to which experiences and prejudices from earlier times are continuing to have an impact. Under the SED regime, companies had to accept not only target requirements and other regulations without objections, but also various special regulations for mothers – reduced working hours, paid maternity leave, generous leaves to care for sick children, personal days, etc. Because of the system-induced labor shortage, this did not lead to their being pushed out of companies, but it did foster a tendency to judge women as less reliable or available in principle. Their labor was needed, but the double burden of career and family meant that it was accorded lower status. Furthermore, since the mid-1970s, women who completed secondary school were increasingly steered into training positions with lower status and less pay. Now company managers have free choice; and now the following holds true in East and West alike: in times of crisis, women usually get the short end of the stick.

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