Unpaid Internships Aren't Just a Problem On 'Girls'

If I were to succinctly state how much of the world views the plight of the unpaid intern, it could be done thusly: #firstworldproblems.

“Why not get a real job,” they say, “or maybe they don’t need one because of Daddy’s money?” The assumption is that if you have an unpaid internship it is probably because you are pursuing a scattered career in some flimsy industry, there’s a job on deck that you will also get thanks to your lofty societal connections, and that this internship is just what you’re doing for fun in this liminal chapter in your life. A recent article in the Atlantic on this topic noted that television personalities such as Girls’ Hannah Horvath and the young women on Gallery Girls help perpetuate the whiny, privileged, ambivalent poster girl of the unpaid internship. 

Let's look at why (perhaps) we as a culture have these associations, and why it is that the vast majority of unpaid interns are in fact young women.

First, addressing the concept that unpaid internships are leading to flimsy careers: An organization that uses unpaid intern labor does so because it is probably somewhat unable to pay interns anything more than meager travel compensation. Generally, this sort of business model (if you can call it that) occurs in places of not-for-profit, education, activism, arts and culture, social services, and … need I continue naming careers frequently associated with the service industry and a strong female workforce?

That’s because they’re caregivers, right, those women? Should we blame the interns for living up to gender norms, because if they’d wanted to make money they should have gone into an industry whose purpose was acquiring, not giving?

Some unpaid internships offer other forms of compensation, it’s true. And then there is the assumption that if one executes an internship well, it will result in a blossoming new position at the company. While this of course does happen sometimes, frequently organizations that host unpaid interns will have more than one ‘employed’ for any one session, for example, a school semester.

Let’s say that an organization has three interns per semester, including three for the summer. That’s nine interns a year, but is a small corporation that requires (or exploits, depending on how you feel about it) the labor of three unpaid individuals in order to function going to be able to support nine new employees a year? Probably they won’t even add one. The unpaid internship has turned into a resume filler until one finds an ‘entry level job’ (that will still require experience in the industry, so thank goodness you had that internship). Additionally, the academic credit only works in the intern’s favor when the hosting institution doesn’t require payment for additional credits from external sources.

Regardless of whether official academic credit is on the table, internships are billed as an educational experience and nowadays, just another step in our quest for ultimate credentialism. Despite the fact that higher education costs continue to skyrocket, there is an ever-shifting interest towards the M.A. as the lowest level of education acceptable and a B.A. no longer cutting it above bare minimum requirements. And, just like all that hype high school seniors have to go through during college applications to promote themselves as dynamic, involved young people, the race to graduate school embodies the same pressure. Even as college remains such an unattainable (and thereby daunting and amazing) goal for a significant portion of people in this country, the quest to continue acquiring paperwork presses on.

Oh, and more women go to college right now than men. That’s why there are so many female unpaid interns. If women would just back down a little bit from all that college nonsense, then there wouldn’t be so many of them doing so much, um, witchwork for free. That must be it. Also, clearly if you had so much money to go to college, then you have some of that cushion left for the months right after it before you really go out into the real world.

"What is the real world?," I find myself asking again and again. Apparently, it is a world where young women are encouraged, in words, to follow their dreams primarily into industries either with too little money or morality to pay them for their valuable labor. A world in which there is stigma for not having enough money to make it through college, having too much money after college (or appearing like you do because you’re slaving away at an unpaid internship), or by choosing a field in college and then afterwards that is too typical/too radical/indulgent/unfruitful or any of those other things that young women (and probably a lot of gay men) hear every day.

When did it suddenly become a rule that in order to ‘have an in’ at a job somewhere, you first had to prove your dexterity with the copier and poise with a pot of coffee?

When did we move on from the concept of apprenticeship, in which there is a mentor, a teacher, a skilled craftsperson passing on direct information and mechanism to the open mind of the recipient?

Perhaps when we moved away from expecting everyone to have one career for the entirety of their working years. The ones that do still merit a lifetime have now been institutionally formalized (medicine, law) and require eons of schooling. Perhaps the trend of the unpaid internship can be chalked up to the underlying fallacy that young women are flightier and can’t make up their minds; why teach them anything when they’re just going to lose interest tomorrow? I’m struck, suddenly, by references to sewing mills in which it was so hard to unionize because the management saw the women as disposable entities. Where there was one, there would be another knocking down the door for the job tomorrow.

Does that mean that we need to gather the Hannah Horvaths of the world, wherever they are, and have them demand compensation for their efforts? Is this the first step to equal pay for women? Starting at the bottom of the ‘educated workforce,' and planting the seeds of greed and entitlement — oops, I mean justice and equality — early?

Yes. Or put more money into those fluffy industries so that the good work can be done. And if that doesn’t work, teach young women to start their own whatever it is they want to do, because they’ll still be unpaid anyway (until it takes off the ground and soars, that is).