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.
A recent study by Prognos, a Swiss research institute, confirms that German companies can save thousands of euros in worker replacement costs by persuading new parents like Nennstiel-Koch to return to work quickly. They also gain by having employees who are absent less, perform better, and feel more committed to their institution or company.
But many say the government should take the lead in promoting family-friendliness. "Developing family initiatives may pay off in the long-term, but it's something that bottom-line-oriented managers can't put on their balance sheets now," says Norbert Wangrick, head of recruiting firm Access.
However, some groups are concerned that such moves do not actually promote stronger families. In January, when Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen - a medical doctor and mother of seven - proposed tax advantages for families using private child care, Albin Nees of the Germany Association of the Family in Berlin advocated instead for higher cash subsidies for parents so that "women can freely choose between work and family."
And Bianca Maria Uhl of the nonprofit association Raising Children in the Family has asked whether more child care options, such as the Alliance provides, is really pro-family. "A child is an enormous gift," says Ms. Uhl, emphasizing the importance of parental love and care in a child's early years.
Although the current government is considering changing policies, such as school days that end at lunchtime, Germany still lags behind other developed countries in promoting a successful melding of career and motherhood.
Studies suggest that when work and family conflict, a country's birthrates drop. Sweden and France, which spent the highest percentage of their gross domestic product - 4 and 3 percent - on family policies also have higher birthrates. Germany, which spends almost the least - 2 percent - has one of the lowest birth rates.
In Germany, as in many European countries, women hold roughly a third of top jobs (such as managerial posts or senior officials). But what's special to Germany is that more women with top jobs - 3 in 4 - have no children at home.
An encouraging development is that family friendliness has become a measure of company success. Companies compete to be named the country's most family-friendly company. Five times as many organizations applied for the award in 2005 as in 2000.
And the respected nonprofit Hertie Foundation offers certifications of companies with good "work-life" policies.
Publicizing the success of family-friendly companies with awards and certificates may be the best way to change German thinking, say some. "Those initiatives show how [balancing work and private lives] can happen," says Closs.