Undoing Gender with Institutions. Lessons from the German Division and Reunification

The coming together of East and West Germany in 1990 involved the combining of not just two economies but also two sets of cultural, social and political norms. In a paper in the Society’s Economic Journal, Claudia Senik, Quentin Lippmann and Alexandre Georgieff 1 show how East German cultural and social norms relating to gender were changed by exposure to the dominant institutions of the West. This is a summary of their findings.


Do gender norms rest on nature or culture? In a recent paper (Lippmann, Georgieff, and Senik, 2020), we show that gender norms are at least partly cultural and can be undone by institutions. We focus on the male breadwinner norm, which prescribes that a man should earn more than his wife. Several papers have shown that this norm acts as a strong impediment towards gender equality because of its impact on the division of home production and female labor market participation. Yet, little is known about its origin and the part played by public policy in constructing or deconstructing it.

Providing causal evidence on this question is empirically challenging as gender-equalizing institutions are much more likely to lay foundations in environments where mentalities are more gender friendly. To overcome this empirical hurdle, we focus on Germany and exploit the natural experiment constituted by the 41-year division of the country. In 1949, Germany was divided on the basis of the zones occupied by the Soviet Union and Western countries. During the 41-year division, two completely different sets of institutions faced each other. The East German institutions were aligned with those of the Soviet bloc and followed Stalin’s urge to ‘catch up and bypass the United States’. They embarked on an extensive growth model, which implied mobilizing all the available productive resources. Full-time employment became the norm and applied to men as well as women. Education and child care institutions were designed in order to ensure the compatibility between paid-work and maternity. The egalitarian ideology of these regimes also certainly played a role. As a result, the perspective of a life-long, full-time labor activity gave women incentives to invest more in education and paid-work. It is also likely that women's financial resources modified the balance of power between spouses in Eastern households.

We argue that, with time, these features crystallized in a specific mix of gender norms and stereotypes: a culture which has partly undone the male breadwinner norm. We show that not only do East German women contribute a much higher share of household income, but they can also earn more than their husbands without having to increase their number of housework hours, put their marriage at risk (or withdraw from the labor market). By contrast, the norm of higher male income, and its consequences, are still prevalent in West Germany.

The Division of Germany as a Natural Experiment

The German episode of division (in 1949) and reunification (in 1990) is unique in its design. Before the division, we provide evidence that the differences between the Eastern and Western parts of Germany were not larger than the average regional differences that can be found between two random pairs of regions within Germany.  Then, after 1949, starting from a similar situation, East and West Germany adopted totally different institutions, which had important consequences in terms of gender roles. In East Germany, where the constitution ensured full equality between men and women, public policy pursued three objectives: (1) legal equality between men and women, (2) promotion of female work, and (3) special protection of mothers and children. The party's policy toward women progressed along three stages. The first phase, from 1946 until the mid-sixties, was shaped by the integration of women into the workforce, backed by work-family balance programs, kindergarten and other childcare facilities. The second phase, from the mid-sixties until 1971, comprised further education, qualified job training, and the introduction of women into male professions. After 1971, these measures were reinforced by an additional array of work-life balance measures. In West Germany in the meantime, the traditional family model was strengthened and encouraged by irregular school schedules, scarce childcare facilities, and the tax system. It is remarkable that, until 1977, the Marriage and Family law of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) stated that:

The wife is responsible for running the household. She has the right to be employed as far as this is compatible with her marriage and family duties.

As a result of these very different policies, the female labor market participation rates diverged radically after the division, although they started from approximately the same level. After reunification, the government of the former FRG took over East Germany and rapidly dissolved its institutions and structures, absorbing them into those of West Germany, which remained unchanged.

Yet, after reunification, persisting differences between the two regions are still observable in four domains: labor market participation, household behavior, education and values. In 2000, labor force participation was at around 80 per cent and still approximately the same for men and women in the regions of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), whereas the gender gap remained wide in West Germany, with 65 per cent of women in the labor force against 81 per cent of men. In 2000, East German workers generally worked longer hours than West Germans, but the gender gap was smaller as concerns work hours: 35 hours for women and 42 hours for men in the former GDR against respectively 29 and 40 hours in the former FRG. Finally, as concerns part-time workers, who are mostly women, in West Germany, they most often worked less than 20 hours, and were not eligible for the same social benefits as full-time workers, whereas in East Germany, they had longer hours, received identical social benefits and used these contracts primarily as a transition to retirement.

Gender Identity and Relative Income within East and West German Households

One of the most striking consequences of the greater involvement of East German women in the labor market is the more gender equal distribution of earnings within couples. Figure 1 depicts the entire distribution of female relative income in dual-earner married couples, aged 18 to 65 years old. In the sample of West German couples, the mode is the point where the wife earns about 20 per cent of the total family earnings. By contrast, in the East German sample, the distribution is much more symmetric, with a mode around equal earnings. 


Did the greater equality in the distribution of earnings abolish the so-called male breadwinner norm? Socio-logists have coined the term doing gender to describe couples’ behavior aimed at preserving gender identity.2 The idea is that when women transgress the male breadwinner norm by earning more than their husband, they compensate this breach of identity by spending more time on traditional female tasks, such as housework. This ‘gender display’ behavior has been documented by several studies in the case of American and Australian couples. Could it be that socialist institutions have ‘undone gender’?

De facto, the male breadwinner norm is prevalent in West Germany but has disappeared in the East. Regarding housework, West German women decrease their number of housework hours as their relative earnings rise, until they reach the vicinity of equal earning. Beyond that point, their number of housework hours stops decreasing. By contrast, there is no evidence of ‘doing gender’ in East Germany. East German women monotonically reduce the time they devote to housework as their relative contribution to household finances increases. Another sign of the male breadwinner norm can be found in marriage stability. Among West German couples, when a wife starts earning more than her husband, the risk of divorce in the next 5 years increases by about 3 percentage points. But nothing of the kind happens for East German couples. Finally, in order to abide by the male breadwinner model, some West German women withdraw from the labor market when their earning capacity is greater than that of their husband. We do not observe this behavior on behalf of Eastern women. Hence, it seems that in East Germany, the socialist episode has undone the male breadwinner norm and its consequences. By contrast, the norm of higher male income, and its consequences, are still prevalent in the Länder of the former FRG.

Beyond Relative Income: the Gender Gap in Mathematics in East and West Germany

Another traditionally important domain of gender asymmetry is education. Although women have almost universally caught up with boys in terms of years of education,3 they keep staying away from math and science (STEM) fields. This has important consequences, as math skills are associated with higher individual earnings. This educational behavior of women can be understood as the logic consequence of expecting a bleaker professional future. It has also been attributed to a gender stereotype carrying the idea that boys are ‘naturally’ more skilled in math and science. De facto, several studies have shown that in countries where socio-economic gender inequality is higher, so is the size of the gender gap in math and science.4 The general gender gap in education has actually been shown to be smaller in former socialist countries as opposed to other OECD countries.5 Zooming again on Germany, we show, in a companion paper, that in East Germany, women's educational attitudes differ from that of their western counterpart.6 The stereotype threat that keeps them away from STEM has been durably attenuated in Eastern Länder, in contrast with Western ones. This is illustrated by the scores obtained by German 15 years old pupils at the math exercises proposed by the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA-E, 2003). In addition to tests, PISA also contains a student questionnaire. In general, the latter reveals that girls express a lower appetite for math, lower self-confidence, more stress and less pleasure in the practice of math. But again, in East Germany, the subjective gender gap in self-confidence in math is reduced by about one tenth to one third. Moreover, although girls generally express less competitive views in PISA’s questionnaire, Eastern girls are much more competition-minded than Western girls.


In conclusion, East German citizens seem to exhibit a certain ‘stubbornness’ (Eigensinn) in retaining the ‘German Democratic Republic standard biography’.7 The lesson of these studies is that gender norms can be durably changed by institutions. How long will this stubbornness last, and how general is it, are open questions for future research.


1. Sorbonne University and l’Ecole d’économie de Paris (Senik); Aix Marseille School of Economics (Lippmann); l’Ecole d’économie de Paris (Georgieff).

2. West and Zimmerman (1987)

3. Goldin 2014, Fortin et al. 2015, Blau and Kahn 2017

4. See for instance Guiso et al. 2008

5. Schnepf, 2007

6. Lippmann and Senik 2018.   7. Breen and Cooke, 2005


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