Unpaid internships don’t help women get ahead

By Hannah Sparks

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, with the end of the summer comes the end of many an unpaid internship. Whether you view them as valuable opportunities to gain experience and contacts in your field or as inherently exploitative, unpaid internships are receiving serious scrutiny in the still-slumming economy, as with all dodgy economic trends.

Basically replacing what was once the entry-level position, unpaid internships have been called exclusionary, elitist and sexist. And the facts mostly back that up: 77 percent of unpaid interns are women, and poorer students are more likely to participate in unpaid internships — especially in the non-profit sector— than their wealthier counterparts, according to “The Debate Over Unpaid College Internships,” a 2010 study from Intern Bridge, Inc.

Factor in living costs in expensive cities, and the unpaid internship can be a raw deal for students already grappling with the financial burdens such as college tuition and student loans.

The tide is turning, though, as internships face criticism under labor laws. In June, a New York federal judge found Searchlight Pictures guilty of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying interns on the production crew for the movie “Black Swan.” The workers did not fit the “trainee” (read: unpaid) status the studio had delegated them. Discussing the case for Slate, Cullen Seltzer praises the judge’s findings, saying that unpaid internships lead to “distorted wages, exploitation of interns, a race to the bottom of the wage scale, and an erosion of the law’s protections for workers.”

More recently, in August, the Lean In Foundation, based upon Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s wildly popular book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” came under fire after editor-at-large Jessica Bennett posted a job listing for an unpaid internship with the company on Facebook.

According to Bennett’s post, the editorial intern (based in New York, an incredibly expensive city to live in) “must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and be able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus!”

Many non-profits have unpaid interns, sure, but Bennett seems to be looking for an assistant, a position that should probably be paid. Bennett later made a scrambling, defensive attempt to explain that she was looking for a “volunteer.” Once this all blew up on the Internet, though, Lean In president Rachel Thomas made a statement announcing plans to start a paid internship program.

This would seem run-of-the-mill, maybe even unworthy of commenting on if there wasn’t a bitterly ironic tone to the whole thing.

It’s important to note that Sandberg, one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2012 and worth around $500 million, holds a lot of sway, which is part of the reason why her book was so popular. “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” was a kind of manifesto for career women, arguing that women can help break down sexist practices in the workplace by “leaning in” and striving for leadership positions.

Meant to empower women, the whole concept of “leaning in” has been debated and widely critiqued on feminist websites ad nauseum since the book was first published in March. Most of the criticism stems from the fact that Sandberg is directing her message at a very narrow (and very privileged) audience of women.

In telling successful career women like herself how to get ahead, she ignores the very sizable population of working women who aren’t looking to climb the ladder, but just to make ends meet. It’s hard for the average woman to lean in to “a labor force that has grown more contingent, relying on part-time, unstable, and insecure work,” as Madeleine Schwartz writes for Dissent Magazine.

“Lean In” is a brand, Sheryl Sandberg is a brand, Facebook is a brand. And all of these brands make millions and millions of dollars. Shortly before Bennett went trolling for unpaid interns on Facebook, Sandberg earned $91 million by selling Facebook stocks.

If Sandberg, or those working on behalf of her ideas, wants to set forth a model of career success and financial independence for women, the least she can do is offer the women working for the organization the things the organization supposedly stands for.

According to its website, the Lean In Foundation is the “next chapter” of Sandberg’s book and is “committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.”

Just a suggestion: paying your interns may be a way to change that trajectory. I think you can afford it.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].