Gender Equality in the GDR – Myth or Role Model?

by Anne-Sophie Rebner on March 29, 2015 - 9:43am

There is a myth about the eastern Germany of the socialist times. The myth of gender equality. Many have heard about it and many still talk today about how in the GDR, there was employment and thus equality for all, men and women. But what part of this optimistic memory of the GDR is true and does the „advance in equality“ of the socialist years still influence todays' females in the eastern part of Germany?

In the GDR, the official political goal was to reach gender equality in employment and life. The socialist government formed institutions to facilitate the compatibility of work and family life. There was a network of kindergartens and children were much involved in public activities, for example in youth organisations like the „Junge Pioniere“. This left space for mothers to work.

So, could the GDR model be a role model for current efforts of structural help for gender equality? And does the impact in the eastern part of Germany still last today?

Gender equality was at a higher level in the GDR than in the Federal Republic of Germany, when it came to employment, at the time of the reunion of eastern and western Germany. [1]

But the equality was not as fully achieved as propagated by the government. While many women had formal work, few reached managerial positions. On the contrary, compared to men, more women worked below their qualification and thus with lower pay. [2] They were needed in the work force due to the economic situation of the country [3] but the socialist ideal of gender equality was not reached. Women rather had the double work load of paid and house work because the norms of the women keeping the home persisted, although on a smaller level than in the west of Germany at that time or today. Furthermore, the representation of women in the politic sphere was not ideal and there was a gender based segregation of work. [1]

For the background oft the gender equality policy in the GDR it is interesting to compare it to other soviet countries. In today’s Russia there are very traditional gender roles coming back after the state abandoned its „fatherly“ role. [4] Hildegard Maria Nickel called the GDR system a „patriarchial model of equality“ [1] because the state did not work for an empowerment of women for the equal standing of man and woman but the goal is that people of every gender work for the good of the community, equal to each other but under the lead of the state. The idea of emancipation was exploited by the state, it mainly meant that everyone had to work. This also meant that family obligations were not considered for women, they had to adapt to the male model of work. [1]

What part of the political influence in east Germany has persisted? In 2002, the difference of male and female employment was still notably bigger in the western part of Germany. The self image of a working woman or mother has had a substantial impact on women in the GDR, also after its fall. [ibid]

Employment of women, just as general employment [5], is also still higher in the newly-formed German states, although the old West German states have somewhat caught up.

Other differences decreased with time. When the female partner spent 2,4 times as much time with the house work than the man in the western part of Germany in 1991, in the eastern part the number decreased until 1995 to 1,4 times. This number has equalised since then. In 2002, the division of house work was at 2 to 1 in both eastern and western Germany. [1]

The GDR is an interesting example of a macro structure that promoted equality in employment. It shows how structure can influence identities. The combination of work and family life was something self-evident for women in the GDR and now, with the change of policies evens itself out with time. Of course the influence of the period lasts still today. [6]

To see the GDR model of equality as a role model for future policies would still be the wrong conclusion. The political goal was not made by the people but by a regime that wanted to strengthen its standing by propagating gender equality and tying the people to its ideology. The change of social norms within the population was left out.


[1] Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung – Gender Equality in Germany (point 5.II)


[2] Konrad Adenauer Stifung: “Myth: In the GDR, women were treated equally”


[3] Geschichte erforschen: “Were women in the GDR fully equally treated?”


[4] Topical Research Digest: Human Rights In Russia And The Former Soviet Republics:


[5] Statistic – labour force participation rate in Germany, 1991-2012


[6] Lola für Lulu: “Equality politics in the GDR between claim and reality”





The topic you have chosen is a really interesting one! As there are still been made structural comparisons between eastern and western Part of Germany your article gives everyone the chance to have a closer view to the roots and the history of the employment structure in eastern Germany. I think it could be quite interesting to have a closer look at the process of socialisation in the GDR. As the regime was based on a clear ideology I think it would be quite interesting to analyse this ideology regarding your topic – the female labour force – with the goal to analyse how the ideology influenced the process of socialization and later the social structure of the society (labour force as a part of it). A differentiated view on that is therefore interesting because – as you already mentioned – there still is a difference between the eastern and western female labour force in Germany, so the impacts are still noticeable.

About the author

Hi, my name is Anne and I study sociology at the university of Potsdam. I love languages, to read and to travel.