Heather McRae (York) comments on Twenty Years of German Unification: "Changing German Gender Regime"

Unification and the Changing German Gender Regime - Heather McRae, York University

There have been profound political, legal, economic and social changes in post-unification Germany during the past 20 years. Merging two distinct systems has necessitated changes to both and, while the most profound changes have certainly been in the former East Germany, there have been changes, especially in social and gender norms, in the West as well. Prior to unification, West Germany was generally identified as a "strong male breadwinner" regime (Ostner and Lewis 1995) characterised by a clear division of roles for men and women and reflected both in policy and practice. Many West German women found their personal identity in their roles as mothers and homemakers. This was reinforced by policies which included a long, low paid parental leave, a poorly developed child care system for children under three, and an education system in which the school day ended shortly after noon. As a result, women's labour market participation has typically been low. In contrast, East German women were encouraged to be both mothers and active members of the labour market. Policies in East Germany aimed to facilitate both employment and motherhood.

A well-paid one year maternity leave, near-universal childcare network for children over 1 year, and state sponsored activities for school aged children, helped to ensure that mothers could remain in active employment even when their children were young.

The availability of childcare for children under three has been a hot topic in recent years, particularly in the former West. in 1989, there was room in formal daycare centres for only 2% of the children under three. In East Germany, there were positions for over 80% of these children (Hagemann 2006). In the post-unification era, two interesting trends are apparent: a gradual increase in the number of young children in care centres in the "Alte Bundesländer" to approximately 9%; and a simultaneous drop in the number of young children in care centres in the "neuen Bundesländer" to only 35% (Henry-Huthmacher 2005). While there are certainly a number of factors influencing the availability of public childcare spots, it is noteworthy that there appears to be a convergence in the middle, with the new patterns reflecting neither then East nor the West German model.

The post-unification political environment has generally been open to addressing questions of reconciliation of work and family responsibilities. This helped to bring about changes to the parental leave model which encourage shorter leaves and the participation of fathers in caregiving. In just a few years this has contributed to changes in parenting practices in both East and West. Approximately 1 in 5 fathers take at least a portion of parental leave (FAZ 2010). Notably, the number of fathers taking leave is higher in the East than in the West, even though in the former East Germany men typically held very little of the childcare responsibilities.

Finally, compared to 1990, the rate of employment for women in partnerships (married or co-habitating) has increased from 53% to 73% in 2009 compared to a relatively constant 83% in East(ern) Germany (Hans Böckler Stiftung 2010). Nonetheless, while there are examples of how the two societies are gradually merging, there remain substantial differences. While the patterns and changes are not identical, they are indicative of gradual shifts in both models towards an more equitable partnership in both employment and care giving. Certainly, unification is not the only reason for these social shifts. It has however played an important role. As individuals move from East to West, they have brought social expectations for child care and reconciliation policies with them thus increasing the demand for affordable child care options. Similarly, the increase in the number of politicians in central roles, many of whom are from the former East, whose own experiences include non-parental childcare centres has helped to create a political environment which is more accepting to public daycare and reconciliation policies. Thus, while political unification per se may not have directly generated immediate and substantive changes in gender policies, the aftermath of unification has contributed to gradual changes in social and gender norms in both East and West Germany.Heath MacRae is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at York University