In findings that come as a surprise to researchers and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, nearly 60 percent of working women in Europe now provide half or more of their family's income - a contribution marginally greater than that of their American counterparts, according to a new study. Almost 30 percent of European working women supply all the household income.
''This tangibly shows how much a working woman affects the quality of a family's life,'' says Colleen Keast, executive director of the Whirlpool Foundation, which commissioned the study.
At the same time, Ms. Keast says, ''Paid work doesn't diminish the high value women assign to their family life.'' An overwhelming majority of European women - 94 percent - say their family is the most important part of their lives. And 85 percent of European women and 88 percent of American women say family care is their responsibility.
Researchers polled nearly 7,000 women and men in five countries - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain - to assess their circumstances and their attitudes on family, work, and societal issues. As one of the largest privately conducted surveys in Europe, it parallels a study the foundation conducted last year in North America.
Most European women describe their work as a job. Only a third regard it as a career, compared with 46 percent of North American women. Even if money were not a concern, almost half of European women say they would still work. Just 1 in 10 view being a full-time homemaker as desirable. But this preference for paid employment comes with a caveat: Women and men alike would prefer part-time work. Only 8 percent of European women and 18 percent of European men would choose full-time work. Among American respondents, 15 percent of women and 33 percent of men say they prefer full-time jobs.
While balancing work and family remains a major issue for European women, job uncertainty ranks as an even bigger concern. Forty-four percent worry about losing employment. Women also cite employers' lack of concern for employees as a problem.
In a telephone interview from Madrid, Keast noted that European women are far more inclined than Americans to say that family responsibilities do not interfere with their work. She attributes this in part to the presence of more grandmothers and aunts to help in caring for children.
The quality of child care, in fact, ranks as a less important issue for Europeans than it does for Americans. In addition to a greater reliance on family child-care support, countries such as France provide public child care on a substantial scale.
Even so, Keast says, ''Like their North American counterparts, European women do not feel that employers and government officials are responding to their needs.'' Flexible work hours remain an unmet priority. One-third of the European women surveyed think families do not have enough time together. And 1 in 4 express concern about caring for elderly parents or relatives.
As European women's roles are changing, so are men's. Close to half of respondents, male and female, report that more European men are taking part in household chores. One-third say men are assuming more responsibility for the care of children. Keast also points out that nearly 1 in 5 men in both Europe and the United States say they would like to stay home with their children.
In another finding that surprised some researchers, Europeans spend more time eating meals together than they do on any other family activity - nine hours a week. Parents also spend an average of five or six hours a week watching television with their children.
Next year, the Whirlpool Foundation will launch a study of women in Asia. In 1998, it plans to make a comparative study of all three regions - North America, Europe, and Asia - to identify common barriers women face in integrating work and family. Keast says the foundation hopes the reports will provide a framework to help employers and other policymakers address specific issues.