HAMBURG, Germany — Margret Jonik, a tall redhead with a nagging smoker's cough, has been pushing cargo around a warehouse floor in steel-toed shoes for 21 years.
Jonik has given her aching back and more than a third of her life to Suederelbe Logistik on the Hamburg harborfront. So she was furious last year, she said, when she discovered that her male colleagues were being paid higher wages for exactly the same work.
In the past, her anger might have come to nothing in a German business world dominated by men. But by using a recently enacted antidiscrimination law, Jonik and dozens of female co-workers were able to sue the company, which settled out of court and agreed to raise the women's pay.
"I am very happy, not just for myself but also for other women in Germany," said Jonik, 57, a quiet pioneer in a workplace battle that women are waging in many of the world's wealthiest nations, including the United States.
The global struggle for women's equality often focuses on the developing world, where women still lack some of the most basic of rights, including education and protection from rape. But in many affluent countries, women's rights advocates say, gender bias endures. It is just harder to see.
German law requires men and women be treated equally; labor contracts that once specified that women be paid 80 percent of the male rate are long gone. The government is headed by a woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yet many Germans, male and female, continue to hold to the traditional German notion that a woman's focus should be Kinder, Kueche, Kirche — children, kitchen, church.
Women who do work often find stubborn barriers. German government statistics show that men typically earn 24 percent more per hour than women, among the widest gender pay gaps in Europe. A recent study comparing men and women in the same jobs at the same firms concluded that women earned 88 percent of what men did.
"This is a significant difference," said study co-author Thomas Hinz, a professor at the University of Konstanz, adding that he found that "real discrimination is a factor" in the pay gap.
Women rarely hold top posts in German business. There is only one woman among the 200 people who sit on the executive boards of the top 30 companies on the German DAX stock index, according to Christian Rickens, editor of Manager magazine. Those companies include global powers such as Lufthansa, Volkswagen, Bayer and Adidas.
"One is a pretty frightening number," Rickens said. "You can't say this is just because women choose to stay home with their children; one-third of women with university degrees don't have children.
"No company will tell you that you won't get promoted because you are a woman," Rickens said. But the people who run companies are men, he said, who "like to surround themselves with people they trust, who think like they do — people like themselves."
In dozens of interviews with German men and women, nearly all agreed that many employers were openly reluctant to hire and promote women of childbearing age.
Ralf Braun, 40, an Internet marketer, said it is only natural for a boss to think that a woman "at some point will get pregnant and stop working," causing problems for the workplace. He predicted that there would never be complete gender equality at work: "It just can't be 50-50. Even in 50 years, I don't think it will be equal for women at work."
Many men said they believed children and families benefited when women stayed at home instead of working.
Merkel's government has made a priority of trying to improve conditions for working mothers, including a multibillion-dollar plan to expand child care and a new effort to encourage fathers to take paternity leave.
In eastern Germany, which was a communist state until 1990, women were encouraged to work and an extensive child care network helped them. Today, in the united country, working parents complain that child care centers are scarce in the west and far more common in the east.
The derogatory words "raven mother" are heard mostly in western Germany. The term means one who abandons her young in the nest to go off and pursue a career. "It's a really ugly term. People say this about you behind your back," said Miriam Holzapfel, 33, a university graduate and mother of two in Hamburg who lost her job after she had a baby. "My friends in the east don't have this kind of social pressure."
Sitting in her living room, Jonik said the settlement money has made a huge difference. After paying for rent, utilities and food from her salary — about $26,000 a year — she has few splurges. But now, she said, she is enjoying the comfort "of being able to save a little each month for retirement."