According to research conducted by the Cologne-based German Economic Institute (IWD), women in eastern Germany earn almost as much as their male colleagues, with a wage gap of six percent. In western Germany, however, women earn an average 24 percent less than men, the IWD said, citing data from the Federal Office for Statistics in Wiesbaden.
The availability of day care plays a major role in this regional difference. In the former East Germany, over 90 percent of women worked outside the home - something that was only possible due to an extensive network of professional day care facilities. Twenty years after East Germany's collapse, this legacy is still intact. According to the IWD, 42 percent of children under the age of three currently have a place at a day care facility in eastern Germany. In western Germany, only 12 percent of children in this age group attend day care.
"Young mothers in western Germany have to invest a lot of time in raising and caring for their children, because there's a lack of care options," the IWD said in its report. "Mothers in eastern Germany find it much easier to drop their child off at a trusted day care in the morning and then rush to the office."
In the former West Germany, professional day care was not developed as extensively due to the family ideology that prevailed in the West during the Cold War period.
"West Germany developed a very strong ideology of the 'housewife marriage' specifically to differentiate itself from the East," said Elizabeth Heineman, an expert on German history and gender studies at the University of Iowa's History Department. "The fact of extensive women's employment and the reliance on day care in the East became a marker of how destructive Communism was to the family, and so West Germany worked hard to differentiate itself from that."
She added that the Catholic and conservative Protestant churches were also very influential in promoting the housewife marriage, whereas the influence of religion was greatly dulled in East Germany.
As a result, women in western Germany are still more likely to take time off to raise their children - something that greatly impacts how much they earn when they do eventually go back to work. A recent study by the Hamburg-based World Economic Institute showed that women who re-enter the workforce after taking extensive maternity leave earn on average 33 percent less than women without children. It also takes working mothers a long time to recover from such a large salary setback. At age 45, working mothers still earn 26 percent less than their female colleagues without children.
Full time vs part time
Women in eastern Germany also outstrip their counterparts in the west when it comes to working full time. Some 70 percent of women in the eastern states work full time compared to 65 percent in the west. According to a survey conducted by the Federal Office for Statistics, two-thirds of women working part-time jobs in the east only do so because they couldn't find full-time work. In western Germany, that was only true for 17 percent of the survey respondents.
These attitudes are also a product of socialization in the post-1949 period, Heineman said.
"If the state demands that women work full-time, as in East Germany, then girls are socialized to look forward to full-time work. If the system is set up to discourage women's full-time work, as in the West, then girls are socialized to think part-time work will be preferable," she said.
Such attitudes could explain current data which shows that young women in eastern Germany are academically outperforming female students in the western states. In 2008, for example, 32 percent of secondary school graduates in western Germany received the diploma known as "Abitur" to qualify them for further study at a university. The rate in eastern Germany was 47 percent.
Technical careers unpopular
But generally, few women across Germany end up pursuing technical degrees such as engineering, despite the lure of higher paid jobs.
Only 12 percent of engineers in Germany are female - a trend that has a number of causes, said Lutz Galilaeer, researcher at the Nuremberg-based research institute for industrial education, FBB.
"Girls in Germany still hang onto the old gender roles and patterns, and when studying, they tend to look for subjects that are more typically female,'' Galilaeer said. He added that many young women might be discouraged by the demanding nature of a technical degree such as engineering, where certain branches have a drop-out rate as high as 40 percent.
Galilaeer also raised the question of what women want out of their careers.
"Technical jobs are still very much dominated by men, and it's difficult for women to get into these fields," he said. "An employer may ask, when presented with a female applicant, will she do well in this environment? Will she be able to work as hard as a man? Will she leave in a few years to have children?"
To redress the gender imbalance in technical careers, the government and private companies have sponsored several programs to attract more women. In June of 2008, the government launched its "MINT" pact, with the aim of attracting women to careers in mathematics, IT, natural science and technology. But according to Galilaeer, progress has been slow.
"It's a long-term process," he said. "In the last few years, the trend has been that the numbers of women in technical jobs are slowly going up, but it's still at a very low level. It needs to become totally normal for a woman to say she wants to become an engineer, and then these differences won't exist anymore."
But he adds that as long as societal structures - such as a lack of organized day care for working mothers - continue to impede women's ability to participate in the workforce, Germany's wage gap will never be resolved.
Reporter: Deanne Corbett
Editor: Sam Edmonds