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.