As Beijing Closes, Women in Italy Find They Work Longest Hours

MERCEDES, a nursery school teacher in Rome, says sometimes her husband helps her with the housework. He puts the dishes in the dishwasher.

Sometimes, but not always, she specifies. ''He doesn't help me too much, because he works very hard, so he's tired,'' she explains. ''I suppose he's more tired than I.''

It may be, but a report issued last month by the United Nations Development Program in the run-up to the UN Women's Conference in Beijing found that Italian women work the longest hours - compared to men - among industrialized nations. (The report defines work as both paid and unpaid labor.)

According to the report, Italian women work 127 hours for every 100 hours worked by men. In the UN ranking, Austrian women were a distant second with 112 hours. American women ranked sixth, working six more hours than men.

Italian sociologists say men do very little housework here, and women must work even harder because a strong tradition of family closeness means that Italy has few day-care and elderly care facilities.

Mercedes, who declines to give her last name, says she works 30 hours a week in a local nursery school, does the shopping and housework, while also taking care of the couple's four-year-old daughter.

Still, she's not convinced that the UN report got it right. ''I know that women in Italy work a lot,'' she says, ''but I'm not sure they work less in other countries.''

Loredana Pellegrini, however, has no doubts that the report is accurate. Ms. Pellegrini owns a women's clothing store here, where she works from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week.

''I don't know if you know the Italian customs,'' she says. ''The man never does anything at home. Women do everything.''

This is the way their mothers bring them up, she says, taking away their plates after their meals, picking up their dirty clothes, and making their beds.

Don't the men help at all? ''Absolutely not,'' she says. ''They make a mess.''

Pellegrini admits that, like many Italian women, she's a fanatic about cleanliness. After the UN report came out, the experts said that probably Italian women make more work for themselves than necessary because of this obsession.

Although Pellegrini is in her early 30s, like many Italian singles she reduces her personal expenses by continuing to live at home, with her father, mother, and brother.

She once tried to convince her brother to give her some help around the house. But she discovered that instead of washing his sheets, he slept on the same ones for a week, so she returned to doing everything.

The cost of living in Italy, one of the world's seven most-industrialized nations, is so high that women can't afford not to work, she says. Often they can't afford to have more than one child, either. There are now more deaths than births in Italy and the rate of childbirth is lower here than anywhere else in the world.

''Now that the woman has achieved her independence, I don't think that she wants to go back to depending on a man,'' she says. ''I never asked anyone for money, not even at home.''

Grazia De Cesare, who works 37.5 hours a week as a legal assistant in a major bank, says she well knew from personal experience how hard the Italian woman works, without any report from the UN.

She took a leave of absence from her job for a few months recently to help her elderly mother, who had broken her leg.

Many men here, she says, work late in hopes of going up the career ladder. Women, if they have a family, can't afford to do this, she adds, and yet, if they want to be paid the same as their male counterparts, they have to work harder and longer on the job than men.

Mrs. De Cesare says her own case is an exception to the rule, however. After years of being single, she told her future husband that, unless he agreed to do half of the housework, she would not marry him.

He agreed. And even if she estimates that she does 55 percent of the chores, she recommends other Italian women follow her example.

''I tell you, my case is an exception,'' she says. ''Many women envy me.''

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