Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Returning to STEM
Returning to STEM

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 Changing priorities: the ABC model

What you want from your work–life balance does not stay the same throughout your life, but will change depending on other priorities and concerns. Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan are psychologists who specialise in the study of careers. Mainiero and Sullivan (2005) developed a model, called the Kaleidoscope ABC model, to try and capture the changing nature of work-life priorities.

Figure 1 Kaleidoscope

According to them, there are three main factors influencing career choices and decision making – authenticity, balance and challenge – and the priorities that we have as individuals change over our lives. The same research showed men and women tend to make these decisions differently. The traditional male career prioritises work, with other factors fitting around this. For most women on the other hand, the priorities shift around, creating different career patterns in the kaleidoscope.

  • Authenticity describes being true to oneself – and in the work context this means focusing on the values and drivers that are most important to you personally. This often becomes a priority in late career, and could even mean giving up paid work to pursue a long held ambition.

  • Balance – getting the right balance between work and other aspects of life – is often a greater priority (especially for women) in mid-career and in many cases can be the trigger for taking a career break, when the demands of work and family are at their most intense.

  • Challenge – being motivated and excited about a project or assignment at work – is a driver at all career stages, but often this is a priority in your early career and fuels the need to find work that will stretch you and lead to new insights, skills and learning.

All three aspects ebb and flow at different life stages, but Mainiero and Sullivan noticed some gender differences in how these priorities change over the course of a lifetime. They found that men were more likely to continue to pursue challenges throughout the early and mid-career stages, while women (if and when they have children) tended to focus on balance in mid-career.

Activity 1 Your life and the ABC model

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Think about your own life priorities and how these have changed over your career. Note how your own experience fits with the ABC model described above. Which of these three would you see as your main priority now?


Perhaps you have spent a long time balancing your commitments and think now is the time for authenticity and challenge, though it’s quite likely that you are still in the process of balancing your desire for authenticity with many demands on your time. This week will help you reflect on that balance.

There are many practical considerations to be taken into account, some of which you cannot control or change. There are gender-related barriers which women face in their attempts to access learning opportunities, employment, career development and personal progression. You will look at these issues in more detail shortly.

During this week you will make notes and complete activities about the impact that returning to work will have on your life. You will consider the plans you need to make in advance of returning to work in order to make the transition successfully. Save your notes from the activities in this section, as you will use them to make your action plan in Week 8.