One of the seemingly perennial questions in the field of gender studies was recently addressed by Anne-Marie Slaughter in a provocative essay published in the July/August 2012 issue of The Atlantic: Why Women Still Can't Have It All. Slaughter, who has enjoyed an exceptionally illustrious career at the highest levels of public policy and academia - Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department is just one of the highlights studding her gliterring curriculum vitae - nevertheless concludes that having both a fulfilling family life and a stellar career is an impossibilty for all but a tiny minority of hugely privileged and/or able women. The present Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University avers that only through closing the 'leadership gap' - populating the key positions in both government and corporations with greater numbers of women - can 'a society that genuinely works for all women' be attained.
Professor Slaughter's thesis is a seductive one, and there is certainly something to be said for having greater female representation at the highest levels of society: the potential for women to shape laws and working environments to take into account their realities should not be underestimated.
But reading her essay, one is left with the uneasy sensation that we have stood here before. At the time of writing, we are in the year 2012, at a time when both Western and non-Western nations have been profoundly influenced by first-, second-, third-wave and even post-feminism. Legal obstacles to female property ownership, education and employment - something that characterised most Western jurisdictions until well into the twentieth century - have been removed. In the Middle East and North African ('MENA') region, women are now more likely to go to university than men, while in educational superpower Finland a stunning 80% of young women enrol in undergraduate studies. Countries as diverse as Indonesia and Iceland - though not, intriguingly, the United States - have had female heads of state, and women make up substantial percentages of legislatures from Algeria to Argentina.
And yet, if anything, the relentless pressure - not just that provided by the intensity of office life or the latest protracted domestic crisis, but the psychological burden (recognised by Professor Slaughter) to conform to social expectactions of thinness and other aesthetic standards - and resulting dissatisfaction are, if anything, ballooning. The rapidly spreading disorder that is unipolar depression - predicted by the WHO to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020 - is twice as common in women.
What Professor Slaughter's analysis misses are the immense cultural and even spiritual barriers that preclude the possibility of any kind of work-life balance, not just for many women but men, too. As Francis Fukuyama perceived a generation ago in his classic, little-understood The End of History and The Last Man, the modern or postmodern human is defined in part by its prizing of material prosperity and the concomitant disconnection from values, most notably spiritual ones. Accordingly (and particularly in the United States and the Anglosphere), vast swathes of the world population have turned work into their only calling and are perfecting the art of death by billable hour; the American Dream (and the Big Idea for much of the rest of the world) is to secure the privilege of being indentured to a financial institution for a minimum period of two-and-a-half decades. It is intellectually naive to desire equilbrium between the professional and the personal realms when this modality is missing from the soul.
Indeed, for both genders the idea that a work-life balance is a viable goal is increasingly not something that can be envisaged within the the paradigm of a conventional career. As Western economies undergo their own version of perestroika and emerging markets find their export horizons contracting by the month, the already chronically high levels of unemployment and insane competition for jobs afflicting much of the developed world will only deepen; public institutions and large private corporations - starved of tax revenues and government indulgence respectively - will demand more from less. Having Anything At All will require people to take selectively from existing systems and create their own structures - social, corporate and familial - if they are not to be condemned to the consequences of ever-accelerating scarcity.