Talking point ... Anne-Marrie Slaughter's piece in the Atlantic started fresh debate on the working woman.

Talking point ... Anne-Marrie Slaughter's piece in the Atlantic started fresh debate on the working woman.

Any mother who has ever held down a job or looked for work while working a second shift at home has pondered that elusive question – is it possible to have it all?

By 'all', we mean the picture-perfect Cate Blanchett or Michelle Obama life: a good relationship, (seemingly) well-adjusted children and a fulfilling career.

Feminism has helped us come a long way ... so how do we make the next step, and does the responsibility even lie on feminism’s shoulders? 

It’s not what every woman wants – indeed, many women don’t want or can’t have children, and that doesn't diminish the scope of their lives. Nor does every woman want a career. Hell, a lot of us are just trying to put food on the table and manage a few hours of sleep every night.

Still, it’s a goal that might seem achievable before children, where women can put in the long hours of study and work which would seem to place them in an equal playing field with men of their age. A time when dreams – and ambition – have no limit.

It’s a topic which has been elevated to headline status over the last week by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter was the first female director of policy planning at the State Department in the US Government, and mother to two teenage sons.

She had it all, right? Except, as she revealed in a landmark essay in the Atlantic, she couldn’t make it last. After two years in her very demanding position she concluded that juggling high-level government work with parenting wasn't possible, not for her, and probably not for many other mothers of children under the age of 18.

Why? Assuming that women have an equal chance of getting into senior positions in the first place, there are a host of reasons that make high-level jobs, both government and corporate, incompatible with involved parenting. They typically require many hours in the office, large amounts of travel and inflexible schedules.

It makes you wonder why anyone would bother to attempt it. The risk, says Slaughter, is that after watching their own mothers move mountains, sacrificing happiness and family time to reach career goals, women might just stop trying. “Many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating 'you can have it all' is simply airbrushing reality,” she warns.

It would be easy to blame feminism for leading us down this miserable path. Many already do. Because the truth is, there may be more women working, but that hasn’t necessarily made us happier.

“And although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades, the economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have shown that women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men," Slaughter says.

But research suggests that women don’t want to stop working. The Ipsos Mackay report The Working Mum, released this month, found substantive benefits for mothers who work. The qualitative research revealed that women enjoy the autonomy money brings, and that they see work as an opportunity to escape the monotony and routine of life at home with the kids. Work, it says, provides an important sense of identity outside of motherhood.

The fact is that we’d probably enjoy work even more if we didn’t have to do everything else as well, but is that feminism’s fault? As one woman in the Ipsos Mackay report says, “We slip in our ‘half-arsed’ bloody careers and still do all the paying the bills, shopping, running the kids around, mowing the lawn ...”

Rather than being feminism's fault that women have to now do ‘everything’, the problem could perhaps be that feminism can only take us so far.

It’s an argument strongly made by E.J Graff at The American Prospect, who, in response to Slaughter’s piece writes: "No movement, no generation has an infinite amount of energy or power to accomplish all the changes needed. Now it’s time for the next generation to reshape education and work in ways that enable all of us to have balanced human lives – lives where we can care for our young, our sick, our old, and ourselves without losing either our minds or our jobs."

Looking back over the last 50 years, we've come a long way. Second-wave feminists spearheaded legislation on equal pay, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination. We have some measure of improvement to childcare access and affordability. How do we make the next step, and does the responsibility even lie on feminism’s shoulders?

Slaughter thinks this will only happen with women in the top levels of politics:

"The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a 'new gender gap' – measured by well-being rather than wages – is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone."

Women in Australia and the UK might argue that it takes more than a woman in the top job. What we need is structural change to rethink the modern workplace around a better work-life balance for everyone, pregnant or childless, male or female. Who’s in?

Have your say on this article on the Essential Baby forum.