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Can we change “ideal worker” norms? The impact of workplace policies, composition, and post-pandemic culture

Headshot of Elizabeth Hirsh

Elizabeth Hirsh


In this talk, I will present collaborative research exploring how organizational policies and workforce composition might challenge the way we define the “ideal worker.” In North American workplaces, especially in professional settings, the prevailing norm is that “ideal workers” are those who put in long hours, put work before other commitments, and make themselves available for work 24/7. A large body of research shows how such ideal worker norms negatively affect employees’ well-being, work-family facilitation, and gender equality. Our analysis examines how variation in work policies (e.g., flexible work, time off, remote work) and organizational conditions (gender and race composition, supervisory arrangements, and industry) affect workers’ ideas about who is the “ideal worker,” bias against those who use flexible work arrangements, and employee wellbeing. We use a variety of individual and firm- level data, including an original survey of employees, fielded by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago in 2018, workplace composition data from the U.S. Department of Labor, and company information gathered online with ChatGPT. Preliminary results show that flexible work policies alone do not weaken ideal worker norms. However, when combined with certain conditions, such as gender-neutral framing of the policies, consistent and accessible policy granting, and supportive leadership, they can alter ideal worker norms, minimize flexibility bias, and improve employee outcomes. I will close with a discussion of our plans for a follow-up survey to explore how ideal worker norms, overwork expectations, and flexibility stigmas have changed in the post-pandemic remote-work culture.

Elizabeth Hirsh is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on work and organizations, inequality, and the law. Most of her work examines how legal interventions and workplace policies affect gender, race, and ethnic inequality at work. Her research has appeared in journals such as the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, Law and Society Review, and Gender and Society. She teaches courses on work, organizations, and quantitative data analysis. She completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Washington in 2006 and is CSSS alumni.