‘All of me’ includes my work

Let's shift our mindset from 'work-life' balance to 'work life-personal life' balance

June 10th, 2022   |   International Education, SIT Graduate Institute

A woman with brown hair and dark clothing smiles toward the camera.
Dr. Sora Friedman

By Sora H. Friedman, PhD

The past four years, I’ve been researching women’s leadership in International Education.* The data shows that even as women reach senior leadership positions, they are still responsible for much of the management of their homes.

This was documented during the COVID pandemic, when more women were negatively affected by quarantine than men. And it is especially the case for women who nurse their babies, as even if partners are able to bottle feed, I’m told that the physical toll of nursing is strenuous and draining, especially for those who work professionally at the same time. (I never had the honor of nursing so I can only try to understand the experience through others’ stories.)

I’m learning to do myself what I’ve advised my students to do for years: to listen to my gut, to trust myself, to acknowledge the complexities of my personal life and my work life, and to better understand how they fit together.

For many, whether parents or not, the desire to spend time with their family and friends, to perform well at work, to exercise, to contribute positively to their community, to continue lifelong learning, to have “me” time, often results in a feeling of constantly being pulled off center as if they are the rope in a game of tug-of-war.

More personally, in addition to trying to understand qualities of effective and rewarding leadership and the experiences of women senior leaders in my field, this year I’m participating in a program on women’s embodied leadership. I’m learning to do myself what I’ve advised my students to do for years: to listen to my gut, to trust myself, to acknowledge the complexities of my personal life and my work life, and to better understand how they fit together.

As I listen and speak with colleagues and women leaders, one theme that consistently surfaces is the challenge of reaching the proverbial “work-life balance.” So I did what any self-respecting academic does: I searched for the term “work-life balance” on the internet.

The search resulted in over 78 hits on the first three pages alone; I stopped scrolling after that. Sources ranged from general medicine (Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health) to education (Maryville University) to psychology (positivepsychology.com, Psychology Today) to commercial professional development (Indeed, LinkedIn, Coursera).

The issue is that the common phrasing of 'work-life balance' sets up a false dichotomy between work and life, as it implies that work is not part of life.

However, a search for “work life-personal life balance” only yielded results that start with “work-life balance.” That’s right! There were NO results that described how to balance work life and personal life.

To me, the issue is that the common phrasing of “work-life balance” sets up a false dichotomy between work and life, as it implies that work is not part of life. But this isn’t my reality, nor that of most professionals I’m talking with. I’ve worked incredibly hard for years to develop a career that is fulfilling and of which I am proud. I’ve invested in my education and professional training, and those who know me know that my career is very much a part of my identity. To me, it is something to celebrate, and it’s my reality.

I first lived and studied abroad when I was 17 and I’ve been involved with international education and exchange ever since. My family is my priority, my number one choice, and always will be. But my work is also integral to my character, as I would not be who I am without it.

By buying into the notion of working toward “work-life balance,” professionals, especially women, are figuratively excluding work from our lives. It is as if we are saying that what we do to fulfill ourselves, to share our expertise, to serve our students and colleagues, and even to support our families, falls outside of what we understand our lives to be.

I propose that we reframe our thinking by changing the verbiage and instead consider how we can balance our work lives and our personal lives. Let’s be realistic about how we spend our time and energy. Let’s be inclusive of all that we do, of all parts of our identities. Let’s give ourselves credit for the myriad responsibilities we hold, knowledge we share, and accomplishments we achieve, by telling the world that we have personal priorities, achievements, and challenges, as well as professional priorities, achievements, and yes, challenges.

As I navigate how to balance my work life and my personal life, my family is always my number one, but my work is also a valued part of me. Together, they make me whole. Let’s celebrate all that we are, in both our work lives and our personal lives.

Dr. Sora Friedman is professor of International and Global Education at SIT Graduate Institute.


*Friedman, S. (2021). How high the ceiling?: Gender and leadership in international higher education. In The Wiley Handbook of Gender Equity in Higher Education, N. Niemi and Weaver-Hightower, M., eds. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.