Lesser Role for Women In Reunified Germany


IMMEDIATELY after World War II, when Germany's major cities lay in ruins, the monumental task of rebuilding fell to women.

Squads of trummerfrauen - literally, ruins women - were dispatched to clear away mountains of rubble. Standing in for the men who were wounded, dead, or still finding their way home, they removed the debris brick by brick so it could be used again.

Almost 50 years later, another massive rebuilding task is under way, in east Germany. But this time, women are being shut out of the process. Statistics show that far more east German women than men have been laid off in the economic restructuring. When it comes to securing scarce new jobs, men are favored. Women over 45 and women with children encounter blatant sex discrimination in the job market.

Ingrid Wentzel, an unemployed textile worker in the once-industrial city of Magdeburg, cites herself and her daughter as proof that "women are no longer equal with men" in the east.

Ms. Wentzel is enrolled in a job-counseling seminar for women over 45 - an age group described by the program director as "hard to place." Wentzel's daughter, who has a three-year-old, is looking for work too, but "being frankly told by employers that they already have enough applications from women who don't have children" and not to bother applying, Wentzel says.

This is not the way things used to be in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Under the Communists, more than 90 percent of women worked (compared to 54.5 percent in West Germany). They were well represented in non-traditional sectors such as engineering and the sciences and in management.

It was not mere egalitarianism that drove the state to pursue full employment of women, but also necessity. The economy was so inefficient that all hands were needed on deck to keep the leaky ship of state afloat.

Since German unification, that ship has sunk, and women here are shocked to discover they've gone down with it. They fear being pushed back to the three K's: Kinder, Kochen, and Kirche (children, cooking, and church). "The trend today is that women should return to their cooking pots," says Helga Bergmann, director of a newly renovated child care center in Magdeburg.

"For the most part, the effect of unification on women in the former GDR has been negative," explains Gisela Helwig, the Cologne-based author of several studies comparing east and west German women. (See west Germany and unification, below.)

EAST German women are dismayed, not only by the harsh job market, but by other drastic changes in the East: the possible loss of the right to an abortion; increased violence against women; and cutbacks in the extensive child care system.

An indication of how east German women size up their futures is the plummeting birth rate. Since unification, the number of births has dropped by half, although some of this can be attributed to the exodus of young families to west Germany, says Eberhard Canzler, head of the gynecological unit at Walter-Friedrich Hospital in Magdeburg.

Dr. Canzler also says that the number of women having themselves sterilized has increased dramatically since the communist days, when sterilization was allowed only for medical reasons.

This increase erupted in scandal in Magdeburg last year, when the city's commissioner for women claimed that young women desperate for work were undergoing the operation either because employers told them to or because they hoped to improve their chances of finding work.

Editha Beier, the women's commissioner, still stands by her claim. But Canzler says that most of the 220 women sterilized at his hospital last year were between the ages of 30 and 45 and already had children. None cited jobs as the reason for sterilization, he says. "Of course," he adds, "the whole social environment here plays a role in women not wanting to have any more children."

Although women accounted for 50 percent of the work force in communist East Germany, they now make up two-thirds of the unemployed. This is partly because industries in which women were heavily represented - such as textiles, clothing, and agriculture - have either gone bust or been greatly scaled back.

Yet despite their over-proportional presence among the jobless, women are getting less than half (43 percent) of the new jobs.

"It's clear that there is sex discrimination in hiring," says Ms. Beier. As evidence, she points to a large commercial employer's job application form. The form asks whether the applicant has had a baby in the last four months and whether the applicant is pregnant, both illegal questions.

One bright spot, that 62 percent of job-retraining slots are going to women, is tarnished by the fact that the classes are steering them toward traditional female professions: nursing, child and elderly care, secretarial work, florist shops, and retail sales.

There is no question that east German women want to work. A 1991 poll for the federal Ministry for Women and Youth shows that only 13 percent of east German women favor leaving the work force altogether or taking a break of more than three years after having a baby. This contrasts with west Germany, where 47 percent of women favor quitting entirely or taking a long parental leave.

The east German attitude has much to do with how girls grew up under communism.

After the seventh grade, all students were required to take poly-technical classes. Young women were funneled into fields of study and jobs that would support vital industries. In general, they were better trained than West German women and considered work outside the home normal. They were supported in their work life by an extensive 12-hour-a-day, free child care system.

Experts are quick to point out that equality between women and men behind the Berlin Wall was to a large extent artificial. The housework still fell to women, and they were locked out of the very top jobs and political posts.

`IN the GDR, we had patriarchal equality. Posters stated that women and men were equal, and people believed it," Beier says.

Given this pseudo-equality, it is not surprising that sexism has resurfaced in the post-communist era, Beier adds, though she attributes some of the setbacks to the adoption of west German laws and the influx of conservative west German managers.

In the end, it all comes down to today's economic reality, says Sabine Sussenguth, director of the Magdeburg retraining program.

"A good-hearted master craftsman may say to me, `She's nice, but sorry, she has two kids. What if they get sick and she has to leave?' " In a harsh, competitive east Germany, she says, employers are not willing to take chances on women.

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