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"Pluralistic ignorance" drives stigma against flexible work

Feb 17 2014

Starting this year, workers in the state of Vermont and the City of San Francisco have the right to make flexible work requests without fear of employer retaliation. These provisions are the first their kind in the U.S. While employers are not required to grant these requests, the law asks them to make a good faith effort to do so.

Sociologist Christin Munsch believes the new laws have the potential to improve the lives of workers and to reduce the "flexibility stigma." The flexibility stigma occurs when “workers who seek flexible work arrangements… are discredited, devalued, and discriminated against by their employers and coworkers.” According to Munsch, workers are aware of this stigma and “often forgo flexible work opportunities that could help them alleviate work-family conflict and stress.” 

Munsch believes it is possible to reduce the bias against flexible work—and that the new flexibility laws will help do just that. Munsch, along with Stanford sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway and UC Hastings Law ProfessorJoan Williams, recently completed a series of experiments to better understand the mechanisms producing the flexibility stigma—along with possible solutions for lessening it.

They discovered that most people have favorable attitudes about flexible work and the people who request it, but they mistakenly believe other people hold unfavorable attitudes. As a result, people tend to publicly express unfavorable attitudes, despite their personal beliefs. The researchers also looked for a way to reduce flexibility stigma. They discovered that if you tell people that the majority of high-status employees work flexibly, bias against flexible work decreases.

Munsch and her colleagues published the results of these studies in a special issue of the journal Work and Occupations, titled "Redesigning, Redefining Work." The special issue, released last Friday, is guest edited by Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll, University of Minnesota sociologist Erin Kelly, and Williams. It features new research on the topic of redesigning work to better meet the realities of today's workforce.     

What I think you think about flexible work

Munsch and her colleagues think the flexibility stigma persists, in part, because people hold mistaken beliefs about others’opinions of flexible work. Social psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: pluralistic ignorance. “It’s not really what you think,” explains Munsch, “it’s what you think others think. If someone believes that the majority of people think flex requesters are uncommitted to work, then they will express similar views—regardless of their true beliefs.”

To test this idea, Munsch designed an experiment. Participants read a fictitious transcript of a conversation between a worker and a human resource representative. In the transcript, the worker requested a flexible work arrangement. Afterward, participants answered a series of questions about the employee’s personality, work ethic, and deservedness of the request. Half of the participants provided their own opinion to these questions, while the other half provided opinions they believed the average American to hold.   

Munsch found that participants consistently viewed flex requesters more positively when asked to provide their own opinions rather than the opinions of the average American. “People who gave their own opinions were more likely to view flex requesters as committed, dependable, and dedicated than people who were asked what they believed to be the opinions of average Americans,” explains Munsch. In short, people tend to believe that the average American is more critical of flexible work—and the people who make flex requests—than themselves. 

According to Munsch, “previous researchers have shown that people will act according to the majority viewpoint, in order to fit in. This is important because in situations like this, people act in ways that may be inconsistent with how they really feel. For example, they may punish people who ask for flexible work arrangements although they may privately approve of flexible work and those who seek it.”

Shifting the social consensus about flexibility

Based on these findings, Munsch, Ridgeway, and Williams saw a path to potentially reduce the flexibility stigma and promote the use of flexible work. They thought that by presenting individuals with evidence that public consensus regarding workplace flexibility was actually quite favorable, anti-flexibility attitudes might decrease. In a second experiment, they told participants that the majority of a company's senior managers worked flexibly. Sure enough, participants who received this information expressed more favorable attitudes about flexible work.    

Munsch believes the Vermont and San Francisco laws will reduce flexibility bias as well. “By making flexible work requests a protected right, it sends the message to both employers and employees that flexible work is normal and socially approved,” explains Munsch.  “Workers may begin to see flexible work arrangements as more and more legitimate.”

Redesigning and redefining work

Munsch and her collaborators hope their research will provide organizations with the knowledge and tools for designing flexible work arrangements that minimize the flexibility stigma.

Other articles in the special issue of Work and Occupations investigate other ways to redesign work to better align with the lives of today's workforce. “This special issue is a call to action," said Clayman Institute Director Shelley Correll. "We need to redesign work to better meet the needs of today’s workforce and to redefine successful work.” 


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