Can women have it all in the UN, NGOs and IOs?

By Kenden Alfond

I have had many clients focused on creating a way to fit together their work and their life: both men and women.  From this I am drawing a composite picture of a client, a 35 year old female working with the UN, let’s call her “Dana”. 

Major topic: Work-life balance; specifically how to blend international career with family life. 

The issues that Dana is working with are universal; rememeber when you started your career looking at more senior women and wondering how they created balance? Or looking at more senior women praying that you would not end up like her.  Every woman I have every talked to thinks about this issue.

Hence sharing her story may help others see themselves.  It addition, it is my hope to stimulate thought on the whole question of women in the international workspace. 

First let’s address that “Dana” is female.  Why is this so?  One reason, of my client pool, women bring the topic of work-life balance into the forefront more explicitly – naming the struggle and working with it in the coaching context.  With this said, men working in the international workspace face work-life balance issues. ”Dana” is a composite - there are many women that work internationally that do not have her life. There are many women in the international workspace who are single mothers, in partnerships without children or are single.  For these women, the life work balance issue has different elements and is still ever-present.  

"Dana" started working internationally 8 years ago, starting with NGOs in the field and then was hired by a UN organization 3 years ago.  When she started she devoted most of her energy to her career – taking hard assignments, traveling a lot, etc.  She now has a partner and a young child and things look and feel different to her.  She is trying to find a workable balance between her work and personal life. 

Ultimately she is asking herself the question “Can I have it all?” – career, partnership, family, my own well-being.  At this moment in her career and life, she knows she has choices to make and feels like she is stuck in a “no-win” situation.  

Every client has found a different balance point that reflect their nature, values, and preferences.  One thing is for sure, the choices have not been easy or quick coming.  

Her struggles come at a moment when the issue of feminism and the professional life of women is topical in the USA.  Clearly this topic is relevant to women working in the international workspace, wherever they are and wherever they come from. 

I found the following 4 articles on the topic to stimulate your reflection on your personal situation and about how it really is for women working in the international workspace. (Yes, these are USA-centric perspectives but they do have some valid points that apply to the international workspace). 

Bottom line inquiry to you is:  “How does this issue look to you?


  • ”Elite Women Put a New Spin on an Old Debate”. The article states ”women have greater status than ever before in human history, even outpacing men in education, yet the lineup at the top of most fields is still stubbornly male. Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?”
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter article  "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All."  went viral on Facebook and was discussed on the front page of the New York Times, attracting attention from around the world. Slaughter is a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.  Foreign Policy magazine named her to their annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009 and 2010


You CAN do meaningful work AND not lose yourself along the way;

Focus on yourself and get started!

Inside & Outside coaching make it possible for you to take charge and move forward with your personal and professional life.

DPPD coaches are certified/accredited coaches with also over 35 years experience in humanitarian and development operations.