West German laws help working women balance family and job. But leave guarantee makes some employers wary of hiring women

When Lion Reggentin smiled for the first time, his mother, Petra, a social worker, was there to see it. Working mothers in West Germany do not have to worry about missing special ``firsts'' because of pressure to get back to their jobs. Since 1968, West German law has guaranteed that every mother is entitled to six weeks of fully-paid maternity leave before she gives birth, and to eight weeks afterward.

She also can take a ``childrearing leave'' of 10 months (including the eight week maternity leave) before the child's first birthday. During this period, which will be extended to one year in 1988, she receives a set monthly payment of 600 deutsche marks (about $350) from the government and is guaranteed the right to return to her job.

Not only mothers but fathers, adoptive parents, and grandparents can get time off for childrearing. Some couples, like the Reggentins, split the 10-month leave.

The family traditionally has been a key focus of initiatives to improve women's situation in this country. Law professor Spiros Simitis notes that in West Germany, maternity rights represent ``an old chapter of the labor law.''

The first maternity leave laws, instituted in 1878, granted mothers a three- week leave following the birth of a child and guaranteed her right to return to work. Five years later, compensation for wages lost while on leave was added to the statute.

Motherhood has become an even more important goal in light of West Germany's shrinking population. Marita Estor, an official at the Ministry for Youth, Family, Women, and Health, emphasizes that the birth rate here is one of the lowest in the world as she explains that government policy aspires to make it easier for women to combine work and family.

But West Germany's maternity rights policy also has its drawbacks.

``There is definitely a link between motherhood rights and a woman's chances of not getting employed,'' Professor Simitis says.

Others confirm the professor's claim. ``We would hesitate before hiring a young woman,'' says D"orte Gatermann, partner in an architectural firm and herself a mother. ``The risk that she would get pregnant and go on leave is just too great.''

A woman partner in a leading Frankfurt law firm reports that the hiring committee questioned her closely about her intentions with respect to children and that they were relieved that she did not plan to have any. She notes that the firm has been reluctant to hire other women.

Employers like Ms. Gatermann see women as a financial risk because they must pay part of the salary a mother receives during her 14-week maternity leave. Many also complain about the expense and inconvenience associated with holding a job open for the 10-month childrearing leave.

Some employers resort to legal loopholes such as employment contracts of limited duration, which are not required by law to include maternity benefits. Others simply find reasons to turn down female job applicants who are of childbearing age.

Ms. Reggentin almost lost her job when her boss found out she was pregnant. ``At first I thought I'd have to give up,'' she says. ``But then I thought about the thousands of unemployed social workers and realized I had no other chance.'' She took her grievance to the agency's employees' council, and after two months of negotiations she was reinstated.

Reggentin was lucky. Had she been forced to take her case to court, she would have had a difficult time winning. Although the West German Constitution prohibits sex discrimination, it is hard to prove.

Nevertheless, women's rights advocates are encouraged by what feminist Alice Schwarzer calls ``a subtle revolution'' in the thinking of young women who increasingly identify work as a high priority.

Ms. Schwarzer's enthusiasm is echoed by Elisabeth Vogelheim, an official of the West German Metalworkers' Union. Despite high unemployment, she reports, ``more women are standing up and demanding their rights.''

The Metalworkers' Union was the first in the Federal Republic to pass an affirmative action plan for its officers. Similar plans are now under active consideration in a number of other unions.

In political circles, the countercultural Greens party has been a particularly vocal proponent of affirmative action measures, including quotas.

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