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Why east and west German women still work vastly different hours

SCHOLARS ARE often greatly excited by “natural experiments”, events that end up separating two groups of people, allowing wonks to compare their subsequent behaviour. Much like the study of twins adopted into different households, the postwar division and eventual reunification of Germany could be seen as such an experiment. A report by the German Institute for Economic Research on working mothers, published ahead of the 30th anniversary of reunification on October 3rd, reveals the interplay between policy and attitudes that influences the decision to work.

When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the east united with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1990, the mothers of young children led very different lives. Life expectancy and incomes were much lower in the east, but communism did at least seem to lead to greater gender equality in labour-market outcomes. Encouraged by state policies and party ideology, mothers were almost as likely to work as fathers, and most worked full-time. In the west, where state and church encouraged mums to stay at home, less than half were in paid employment, and most of those worked part-time.

Three decades on, how has the picture changed? Two things stand out. First, behaviour has changed drastically since unification: the share of eastern women with young children working...



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