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German Women Create Their Jobs By Starting Their Own Businesses

Lure of The Entrepreneur

Viola Winkler is a woman on the go. When not dashing to catch a flight to one of her branch offices in Hamburg, Frankfurt, or Moscow, she often spends late nights organizing trade fairs on starting small businesses.

Ms. Winkler is head of the Saxony Training Institute in Dresden, Germany, which trains prospective entrepreneurs in managerial, marketing, and other business skills. When an important call comes in, she springs from the meeting table and darts for her office, her heels leaving indentations in the blue-carpeted hallway.

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A lot of other eastern German women would like to follow in her tracks. One-third of east German businesses are owned by women, compared with one-fourth to one-fifth in western Germany, according to the Federal Labor Bureau. Women head 150,000 firms employing roughly 1 million people, at a time when German unemployment stands above 4.8 million, at near-record levels.

One reason many east German women have become entrepreneurs is that they were laid off following German unification in 1990. "Women were the first to be removed from the work force," Winkler says. As waves of unprofitable, uncompetitive Communist-era factories were shut down between 1990 and 1995, 1.6 million women lost their jobs, compared with 1.2 million men.

Under Communist rule, more than 90 percent of women worked. The regime, at least officially, sought high female employment on ideological grounds. Some analysts say, however, that the motive was less equality than making sure that families were forced to rely on the state to care for their children.

Either way, most east German women today prefer not to stay home. Three times as many east German women as west seek to return to jobs after two years of maternity leave - a year less than they are legally allowed.

"It's a society thing," says Ilona Weisbach, who owns and manages a small textile factory in the town of Hormersdorf, west of Dresden. "We received good training. We worked, and we were used to earning our own living and being independent."

Since Ms. Weisbach opened her factory in 1993, it has grown from six to 30 employees, 27 of them women. Weisbach sees her factory as more than just a way of attaining independence and turning a profit. "It's a matter of social responsibility to the people in the region," she says.

Social concerns are a pressing issue for women in Germany. Many see themselves as underrepresented not only in business, but in politics as well. Women have been raising their voices during "Frauen Power Woche," a week of demonstrations, debates, and self-help seminars that kicked off on International Women's Day, March 8.

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An important source of support, say Weisbach and other businesswomen, is their families. Weisbach's husband, Lothar, in addition to pitching in on domestic chores, is also one of her three male employees. He does everything from maintaining machinery to marketing. But, she makes clear, "I am the boss."

While there are success stories, Helga Foster of the Berlin-based Federal Institute for Vocational Training and Academic Questions on Women is skeptical that entrepreneurship is the answer to female unemployment in east Germany.

"Yes, it's true that 1 out of 3 businesses opened up is opened up by a woman," she says. "But it's also true that 1 out of every 3 businesses closed is closed by a woman."

A more sustainable answer, Ms. Foster says, is getting women into traditionally male-dominated fields, such as high technology, mechanics, and carpentry.

Entrepreneur Winkler, despite her own success, says the situation is indeed difficult for eastern German women. She says they face discrimination not only because of their gender, but also because of west German stereotypes of easterners as unsophisticated and undereducated.

"I have two problems [to overcome]," she says, "I'm a woman, and I'm from the east."

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