Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

High-Tech Germany Only Now Warming to Working Moms

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

High-Tech Germany Only Now Warming to Working Moms

Article excerpt

It was a memorable meeting.

Sissi Closs was interviewing a potential employee for her IT company when she learned that the pregnant woman had effectively been shuffled aside because she would be having a child.

Something clicked in Ms. Closs's mind.

"I recognized early on that the more flexible we are, the more productive," says Closs, adding that the exchange two decades ago shaped her business philosophy.

Now, Germany is starting to come to the same realization, mounting a controversial challenge to the long-cherished idea that mothers belong at home. But with an aging population already straining its social welfare system, Germany is trying to find ways to tap into a little-used pool of highly skilled workers without pushing birthrates even lower.

"We're not talking about encouraging women to work anymore. Women do work," says Katharina Spiess of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. "We're talking about mothers; here, Germany is far behind."

Businesses and politicians alike are making work-and-family balance more of a priority. One program that seems to be paying off is the Alliance for the Family. Introduced in 2003, the government initiative funds grass-roots networks that help working parents. There are now more than 300 Family Alliances across Germany, in which 1,000 firms have partnered with churches, non-profit groups, and local governments.

In southwestern Germany, the Wiesbaden Alliance obtained a church property to create a day-care center. In Lower Saxony, the Alliance offers replacement staff during maternity leave. In the Taunus region near Frankfurt, it recruits and trains child-care providers, with companies paying for the training and employees applying for a trained person.

It was due to the Taunus Alliance that Carola Nennstiel-Koch went back to her job only one year after her daughter's birth. Having grown up in eastern Germany, where state-funded child care had been firmly established during Communist times, Ms. Nennstiel-Koch had always taken for granted that she'd go back to work.

But in the small village north of Frankfurt where she settled, she felt trapped. With no child-care possibilities, she thought she'd have to wait until her daughter reached preschool age to go back to work - and feared she would lose her edge.

"In theory, you are entitled to three years maternity leave, but the reality is different," says Nennstiel-Koch, personnel manager at auto-parts manufacturer Continental Teves in Frankfurt, noting that a three-year pause makes it difficult for mothers to resume their former post.

Then she heard about the Alliance and got her boss to become a member, which entitled her to apply for a trained child-care provider. Both she and her boss share the costs. "Without it, I wouldn't be back at work now," she says. …

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