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Germany is a nation that seems, in many ways, very family-friendly. It has over 150 laws guaranteeing paid leave, childcare, and other family-related benefits. But such benefits, which are intended to make life easier for working mothers, are in many cases having the opposite effect. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that the policies contribute to making German women among the most underemployed and underpaid in Northern Europe.

He story is the latest in our series on the changing lives of women.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Children play under the watchful eye of their parents in this upscale Berlin neighborhood called Penslow Abeyie, nicked named Nappy Valley, which refers to diapers. The neighborhood has one of the higher birthrates in Northern Europe. It's rare in Germany to see so many young professionals pushing carriages and strollers as one sees here.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel would like to see more. Germany's birthrate is less than one and a half children per woman and there's an alarming shortage of homegrown skilled labor. The federal government in German states poured nearly $260 billion a year into programs aimed at encouraging women to have children without having to sacrifice their careers.

Merkel's approach is a lot different than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who dismissed family-related politics as gedoens, or meaningless fuss. Ursula von der Leyen is Germany's current labor minister. The doctor and mother of seven is the architecture for her government's progressive shift.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: If I look at my daughters, what I want to have on the long term is that they are able to have the children they want to have, but also to have the career they want to have. And that means good childcare, good schools, family-friendly workplaces and of course encourage fathers to be good fathers and take their share.

NELSON: A lot of that infrastructure is already supposed to be in place. Existing laws guarantee working parents up to 14 months of paid leave, the right to return to work, as well as subsidized daycare for children under three. But the government-mandated safety net is not having the desired effect. German women are falling behind their counterparts career-wise in other European countries with powerful economies.

Recent studies show most German women work, but half of them only do so part-time. That also leads to German women earning 22 percent less than German men with the gap widening as they grow older, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. German businesses blame the government for why German women are falling behind economically. They complain that Merkel's conservative ruling coalition has created a labyrinth of benefits and tax breaks that rewards mothers for staying home, rather than returning to work.

JANA SCHMIKE: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Jana Schmike of the Federal Association of German Employers says her group is fighting against the new benefit the government will soon begin paying to women who stay at home with their kids instead of putting them in daycare. In Hamburg, state officials are suing to block the payments, which will cost them nearly $30 million a year.

They say that money would be better spent providing extra daycare so that more women can return to work. But working mothers interviewed by NPR says there's a bigger problem.

SABINE ENSELEIT: It's a problem of the mindset in Germany, like coming from the '50s, with the man going to work and the woman taking care of the children at home.

NELSON: That's Sabine Enseleit, a 42-year-old mother of three who works for an insurance company in Hamburg. Enseleit says the government reinforces the old fashioned mindset in many ways. She asks, how can women work full time if schools operate only for half days and daycare is largely part-time? German business culture is even worse adds Kathrin Jenner, a 40-year-old director of marketing in Hamburg and mother of two.

Her husband is a stay-at-home dad, which she says prompts a lot of uncomfortable comments, especially from male colleagues.

KATHRIN JENNER: Some people really looked at me and asked me questions like, oh, so you're leaving your baby at home and that does work with your husband, implicating that nobody could take care better of her child than the mother.

NELSON: These women and dozens more attended a recent meeting of their support group called Working Moms. The group, which has 250 members across Germany, helps professional women juggle careers and families. One of its founders is Sonia Schilling, a French-born mother of three. The 43-year-old manager at a financial institution says her employer replaced her before she returned from maternity leave seven years ago. That's illegal in Germany, but Schilling says employers are rarely punished.

SONIA SCHILLING: I had to start again on a lower level. I would say that in Germany it's really, really hard to have a career if you have children. It's nearly impossible when you have three children. I had direction that, OK, take it easy. Don't work too much. Of course, you are welcome, but in fact, my career stopped.

NELSON: Nevertheless, attitudes are starting to change, especially among German businesses affected by the skilled labor shortage. They recognize the untapped potential of highly educated but underemployed German women. The Chamber of Commerce in Hamburg, for example, has awarded more than 100 companies with a family-friendly seal. One of them is a cellular phone technology company called Whatever Mobile.

The 11-year-old company is too small to have onsite daycare, but employees are allowed to bring their children to the office or work remotely from home. Stefanie Cortinovis is the personnel manager here. The 40-year-old mother of one is a key force behind Whatever Mobile's policy of making work and home life compatible.

STEFANIE CORTINOVIS: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She says more German companies will have to do the same as younger generations are much more adamant about achieving a balance between their careers and personal lives. She says it's not just German women, but men who've become more emboldened since Minister von der Leyen introduced paternal leave in 2007.

One such employee is Heiko Sievers, a Whatever Mobile team leader. The 36-year-old says he and his wife work full time and were lucky enough to find affordable full time daycare for their two children in the next town.

HEIKO SIEVERS: This is the life I choose so otherwise I would not have to have any children. This is what we call the work/life balance, so we try to have all these things together and handle all these, and it's a challenge sometimes.

NELSON: Back in Berlin, Labor Minister von der Leyen says she will continue to help working German parents overcome their obstacles. She's pursuing a law that would make it mandatory for companies to allow mothers to return to full-time schedule if they choose and she also wants to change the tax code to reward families who have more children rather than families in which the partner who earns less stays home. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

GREENE: And there's more from our Changing Lives of Women series online.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've built a new tool designed for women to create and share workplace wisdom. It's a sign generator called She Works, Note to Self.

GREENE: We've already got some great submissions like: What would Madeleine Albright do?

INSKEEP: And: Brittany Spears made it through 2007, you will make it through this day.

GREENE: And from our own colleague, Nina Totenberg: Pick the battles that are worth fighting. There will be plenty, I promise. You can find may more and add your own at our website, npr.org.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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