Why do British women die younger, work harder, get divorced more often and have more children than any others in Europe? By Anne Treneman
Pity the poor Italian woman. You know, the one with the macho husband and the ever-increasing family. She's got endless pasta in the kitchen, a pram in the hallway and the pope in the bedroom, too. Who wouldn't be fed up?

Except that she's not. Put away those Mama Mia ideas because the real picture is much more shocking: it seems the Mediterranean sisters have been doing it for themselves for some time now. The average Italian woman is likely to have a full-time job and/or just one child. Italy has the lowest birth rate in the developed world: the Pope was kicked out the bedroom years ago.

Last week, Market Assessment Publications produced a report on the place of women in western Europe, which bursts so many myths it should have come with a pin. First to go was that of the downtrodden Mediterranean women (Spanish women are also having fewer children and more careers to complement their family lives). Next was that of German superiority: women there work harder and die sooner than in most other countries. The importance of marriage in French family life also turns out to be false: their marriage rate has now fallen to the lowest in Europe. However, they are still bearing children, just a lot more out of wedlock. The French also have the lowest percentage of single-parent families. Say goodbye to the idea that marriage keeps families together.

Perhaps the biggest myth of all is the idea that the British are somehow on par with those on the Continent. The survey of Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the UK showed that British women:

l Have the lowest life expectancy in Europe of age 79. The highest was France, with 81.4 years.

l Work more than anywhere else. In the UK 65.9 per cent of women work, compared with 42 per cent in Italy and Spain, 59.6 per cent in France and 60.7 in Germany.

l Are the youngest to get married first, at an average age of 25.6.

l Have by far the highest divorce rate, with four out of seven marriages ending in a split. The European average is one divorce for every three marriages.

l Have the highest birth rate in Europe, at 1.75 per woman. Next, in decreasing order, come France, Germany, Spain and Italy (with 1.22).

l Make up 50 per cent of higher-education students. This is about average in Europe. France has the most, with 54 per cent.

l Have the highest percentage of one-parent families (14 per cent).

So, British women die younger, work harder, get divorced more often and have more children than any other females in Europe. No wonder the Market Assessment Publications press release was headlined: "Are we working our women to death?" "It appears that women in Britain have had the worst deal from feminism in the past 10 years," said Steve Cordingley of Market Assessment Publications.

The French seem to have had the best, with Spain and Italy close behind. "The sense we get from this is that women there appear to have been trying to take control of their destinies," says Cordingley. In France that means more education and fewer divorces; in Italy and Spain, it means much smaller families. Nappy sales may be down, but signs are that parents are spending as much as they used to in other areas. "Fewer babies does not necessarily mean that parents are spending less. They might have one child and spend a lot on it," said a spokesman for an Italian clothes retailer.

This is called quality of life and is precisely what British women are getting less of. Take work: the fact that 65 per cent of women work does not need to be seen as negative: in fact it could be something of a revolution. However, you then discover that almost half of those women are working part time. This is the highest proportion in Europe.

Nor would it be true to say that those working full time have taken over the bread-winning role. Instead, many part-time workers have partners who are either unemployed or are also part time. "These women are probably the unsung heroes of the UK's population," says Cordingley. "They are having to work very hard to hold the whole thing together. The picture we have of women single-mindedly pursuing a career is not true. A large majority are slogging away and totally committed to their families."

The operative word there is "slogging", and such "heroism" is in much shorter supply on the Continent. Take Spain, where 42.6 per cent of women work, but only 15 per cent of that number are part-time. Many of the rest are climbing the career ladder. "I'm not a feminist but I admire the women who run companies here." This is the kind of comment you hear these days in Spain (this one was from a top businesswoman) and, in the Nineties, one in seven of Spain's public-institution high-fliers is a woman. "The conventional theory is that in times of crisis, the woman leaves the workplace and returns to the home. But I don't see it happening now. That's progress," said a spokeswoman for the Women's Institute in Madrid.

This is more than just progress - it's money. Here, Britain's working revolution is exposed for what it is. A survey by the Mori research organisation, Whirlpool, published earlier this year, shows that British women are the least likely to earn all of the family income. The European average was 28 per cent; the highest countries were Germany (38 per cent) and France (36 per cent), followed by Spain (30 per cent) and Italy (22 per cent). Coming up last was Britain, at 12 per cent. Whirlpool attributed this fact to British women's relative concentration in low-paid, part-time work.

This is the kind of revolution we do not need. On the Continent there is more respect for the fact that women workers (even pregnant ones) are valuable and that you cannot create a society of happy families and productive workers without accounting for career breaks in some form. "Having it all" does not have to be an exercise in masochism. Paula Snyder, author of The European Women's Almanac, says: "The climate in many other European countries is encouraging women and men to share family and income responsibilities more equally." That means better paternity leave and parental-leave provisions.

If you think that sounds boring then you aren't "listening to women's voices". That is the message of a report published today by the Women's Communication Centre. The document, called Values and Visions, shows that when women think of Europe, they think not of monetary union but of the social chapter. They worry about low wages, the status of part-time work, and maternity rights.

In other countries such a report would not be front-page news (as it was yesterday in the Independent on Sunday). In France, for, instance, there are already many more rights. There is a breast-feeding allowance and workers can take an extra unpaid year off before a child's third birthday. Despite this, the grass is even greener in Copenhagen. "I think Denmark has the right idea," says one Parisian Father. Indeed it does: maternity provision is excellent and there are smaller touches that speak volumes, such as the law that gives parents with sick children the first day off on full pay.

In Britain, such things are not even up for debate. The national habit of apologising seems to have made us into a people who are grateful for crumbs. There are cheers when an employer comes here to take advantage of some of the lowest wages in Europe. In 1996, people are still discussing whether small businesses can afford to give maternity leave. One-parent families are still being viewed as though they sprung up from nowhere, and marriage is debated with religious fervour but without regard for facts such as those from France.

Meanwhile, the gender war bubbles on, with much hand-wringing over the redundant British male. New Man is wondering where his mate might be. One pony-tailed man despairs: "I'm a SNAG - you know, a Sensitive New Age Guy - and I'm happy to do all the cooking. But who's going to bring home the bacon?"

For most women in Britain this is simply not possible (unless they happen to find some at half-price). We need to look south for inspiration. Which woman of Europe would you rather be? Market Assessment Publications' Steve Cordingley does not stop for long before he answers: "I'd be in Spain by now. It's warm, the food is good and it looks like you can live forever." And where would he least like to be? "I don't think I should say." Exactly.


UK average EU average

Family 97 per cent 96 per cent

Work 78 per cent 90 per cent

Friends 93 per cent 88 per cent

Leisure 83 per cent 84 per cent

Living with a partner 72 per cent 84 per cent

Religion 33 per cent 39 per cent

Politics 34 per cent 35 per cent

Source: Eurobarometer/MAPS