With an ‘S’ on My Chest: The Reality of Being a Superwoman

other people’s
expectations about your time
without being hostile.


The lyrics in Alicia Keys’ hit song “Superwoman” tell of the transformation that women make even when they are tired and overworked. No matter what her burdens, the woman needs to find the strength to become what society expects of her. She has to don “a vest with the letter ‘S’ on my chest,” sings Keys, and turn into Superwoman.

The 2008 song struck home for Dr. Cynthia K. Gooch and prompted her to discuss the topic of work-life balance at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership conference, held in Lincoln in October 2011.

“I thought, that’s me,” she said when she heard the song, “trying to publish, working hard, serve the community and take care of my family.” In trying to be a better mother, colleague and partner, we are pressured to neglect ourselves. We put on that cape and charge forward, damn the consequences.

Gooch, associate VP of equity and diversity at Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College, earned her PhD in higher educational leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She based her presentation on findings from her dissertation research.


Before 1937 when the eight-hour workday came about as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, work-life balance did not exist. You worked until your employer told you to go home, then got up the next day and did it again.

Yet as early as 1914, industrialist Henry Ford doubled his employees’ pay and cut shifts from nine to eight hours, realizing that that little got done in that ninth hour.

We’ve come a long way since then. In 1946 the federal government inaugurated the 40-hour workweek for all federal employees, and businesses reluctantly began to follow the government’s lead.

The phrase “work-life balance” arrived during the 1980s, when corporations introduced maternity leave policies, flexible scheduling and telecommuting options.

What balance?

What constitutes work-life balance? It’s basically a way to make sure you have time to do everything that has to be done at work and what you want to do in your personal life.

We all have 24 hours in a day. The work-life concept is an ever-changing balancing act between the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the time you spend with your family and doing the things you enjoy.

We all agree that all work and no play make some Jills into dull girls. Ironically, those who enjoy their work and have few outside distractions may actually have better balance than someone who would prefer to be at home, but needs to work for the money or insurance.

And balance needs to be considered over time. At some points of each woman’s career, one or the other sphere may rotate into prime position.

Gooch is no stranger to walking the work-life tightrope. Earning a master’s degree in mental health and family counseling from the University of the District of Columbia, an historically black college, she balanced getting an education with a full-time job as the director of Boys Town of Washington, a long-term, residential and treatment facility for troubled children. “I went to class at night and worked during the day,” she said.

So when the issue came up quite unexpectedly during research for her dissertation on how mentoring impacts career paths, it caught her attention.

Her research

For her dissertation, Gooch sent letters to female African American community college presidents inviting them to participate. To conduct face-to-face interviews, she invited only those from the southern United States. From the respondents, Gooch interviewed five women.

During the interviews, without pre-set questions or prompting, participants offered their perspectives on worklife balance, one of five themes to arise from the research.

One participant thought that being a college president was the hardest job from a time perspective. The amount of outside work required is enormous. As a college president, you can lose your personal life if you’re not careful.

Another who mentors both women and men changes the lesson depending on the gender of the mentee. Both groups are taught to understand leadership principles and what it takes to be a good leader. But with her female mentees, the president also discusses their values and how to balance their personal lives with their work.

One participant said that in discussions between her and her partner, the question frequently came up, “If you do this, what does this mean for our family?”

A question of balance

The topic of work-life is hot, not only in higher education. It has now captured the attention of pop culture. When Gooch searched the music-sharing site, Pandora, for songs that had “superwoman” in the lyrics, she found 52 separate references. The movie I Don’t Know How She Does It reflects what the women in her dissertation described.

Gooch referenced a story in the 2011 book Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia, which told of a woman who flew from the West Coast to the East Coast for a job interview, leaving her one-month old baby at home. During the interview, she tried to hide her being a new mother—until her milk began to leak.

Some single academic leaders find that they can perform well because they don’t have a family at home to worry about. However, they still need to find time to develop and nurture a support network that they can rely on during challenging times.

Those with children often lean on partners, family and friends, nannies and reliable babysitters to pick up the slack. Or they bring them to school activities.

The book outlines a series of questions women who intend to seek an academic career should ask themselves before embarking on the journey. Key among them is figuring out what they want the end result to be.

Do they intend to strive to become a full professor or top leader? Or will they be content just to earn tenure or be a department director?

Along with their career planning, young professionals must consider family planning. Do they want to have children? If so, when will they attempt to fit them into an already crowded academic schedule especially if they haven’t yet earned tenure?

The question of tenure is in a state of flux these days. Do you have tenure or are you planning to seek it? What will it mean for your personal life if you achieve it, or if you don’t?

Will the job you currently have allow you to actually balance work and family? What types of policies are available at your school to help you do that?

Your time is valuable and playing politics is a necessary part of the game. Women must be able to do the networking necessary for advancement. They must determine whether they “schmooze” enough at events and are able to say “no” to the unimportant things.

Everyone needs to establish a healthy work-life balance, but women definitely have it worse. “Children and spouses tend to be more dependent so it is critical that you have a support network,” said Gooch.

Outsource and delegate

When attempting to strike a balance, it’s important to figure out what parts you can outsource to others. The key, said Gooch, is that you don’t try to do it all. Talk show diva Oprah Winfrey said, “I’ve learned that you can’t have everything and do everything at the same time.”

Set clear boundaries about your time and attention. Weigh what’s important to you and what you want to focus on. This can include family and friends, but also pets and hobbies, things that make your life fuller and richer. Build a circle of support.

Manage other people’s expectations about your time without being hostile. It’s your job to manage your dean and supervisor, not the reverse. Start early with the need to be flexible and convey it to all parties. Let people know about your other responsibilities and don’t let them minimize what you value.

Use effective time management tools and leverage technology to your advantage. Email, online classes and Skype allow you to do your job while staying in one place.

Organize your home, your workspace and your car. Just like the old story about eating an elephant one bite at a time, with a bit of organization you can eliminate a lot of work clutter and make your schedule work for you. But avoid the temptation to over-schedule.

Schedule as much as you can in advance; don’t leave it to chance. If you don’t set boundaries on your time, you can be sure others will co-opt it for their priorities.

Good health is a top priority. Without it, you won’t be able to accomplish all that you’ve set out to do. Factor in fitness and eat right. Cook a week’s meals on Saturday and Sunday and freeze. Set aside time for reflection and sleep.

We appear to have lost the time-honored tradition of Sunday being a day of rest. Take time on Sunday evenings to plan out the week ahead. Protect the times you need to be with family and the times that you need to be at work. Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all, there is no one right way to do things. Collaboration allows you to get more done in less time and with less work. The dirty little secret is that you don’t need to do it all yourself just as long as the job gets done.

When assembling your schedule, try to alternate light tasks with heavy ones. Don’t book yourself full of back-to-back challenges. If you’re in meetings all week, realize that means your evenings and weekends will be filled with the real work that needs to get done.

It’s no secret that we’re caregivers to everyone else in our lives but ourselves. It’s time to take some time for ourselves. As comedienne Lily Tomlin has said, “For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”

Cgooch@mccneb.edu  or 402.457.2649

 Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, June). With an ‘S’ on My Chest: The Reality of Being a Superwoman. Women in Higher Education, 21(6), 18-19.

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