It’s that time of year—across campus, students are checking email and voicemail messages in anticipation of what seems like the golden ticket to success: a chance to commit three months of summer to a low- or unpaid desk job. As we send out cover letters and set up interviews, there’s a low rumble of anxiety: “Hire me! Even for free!”
As many as three-quarters of college students undertake internships before they graduate. As Ross Perlin documents in Intern Nation (recently released in paperback), many of these internships are unpaid, and many are illegal. Interns have no access to benefits and protections. In many cases, they don’t even gain any skills, not to mention any advancement in their career paths.
Unpaid internships are a feminist problem as well as a labor one. Women make up the bulk of unpaid interns: According to one study, as many as 77 percent of unpaid interns nationwide may be female (with some survey bias). The industries women often go into, such as media, fashion, or the arts, tend to rely on freelancers, temps, and other forms of “precarious” and poorly compensated labor, Perlin told me in a phone interview. With unpaid internships, pay disparities between men and women begin before we even graduate from college. Further, according to Phil Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, companies sometimes offer two tiers of internships—paid ones to students in male-dominated fields like engineering and unpaid ones to students working in female-heavy fields like human resources. Unpaid interns, in a legal limbo between paid employees and full-time students, are often not even covered by standard workplace protections. In cases of sexual harassment, workplace regulations may simply not apply. As recently as 2008, an intern’s sexual harassment claim was dismissed because Washington D.C.’s anti-discrimination law did not include unpaid interns in its definition of employee.
The disposable nature of the unpaid intern’s position affects the way we view our own worth. Perlin points out in his book that students do not readily think of themselves as workers, even when they are, in fact, logging in hours of paid or unpaid labor. They are likely to justify any experience as an “educational” one—although that experience may be as menial as entering data into a spreadsheet without compensation.
The students I talked with did find that they had acquired skills by working over the summer. One woman told me that her internship had informed the content of her thesis; another said that it helped eliminate arts management as a possible career path. But they acknowledged at the same time seeing no option but to work unpaid, even as they recognized having been overworked considering their lack of compensation. “The thing about theater is you need an unpaid internship to get into [the profession],” said one student who worked as a marketing intern for a theater company in New York. “The people that I want to work for really can’t afford to compensate their interns like private companies can,” said one student who had spent three consecutive summers working unpaid (with a school stipend) in a variety of policy or law positions.
It is obviously not an intern’s responsibility to ensure that the work conditions he or she enters are fair ones. This onus falls on employers, regulators, and schools, which should more clearly inform students of their rights as interns and take a more discerning eye to the postings they offer every year.
But we owe it to ourselves to learn and recognize our rights in every environment we enter, even “educational” and “beneficial” ones. If your internship immediately benefits your employer and does not train you, it may be illegal. Your employer cannot use you as a substitute for regular employees, nor should he or she use it as a “trial period” for future employment. More information can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor website—but be aware that at least one court has rejected these criteria.
This is especially important considering the emphasis on compliance and flexibility in a job market that has become more and more precarious. Unpaid internships don’t just introduce you to an office environment; they teach you to be thankful for whatever work opportunities you may have, even if these opportunities are unfruitful and unfulfilling, as others have noted. It’s similar to what feminist and lecturer in philosophy Nina Power has termed “the feminization of labor:” In an uncertain office environment, we’re all expected to be demure, enthusiastic and flexible—the characteristics of a good secretary.
Work is not good will in exchange for good conscience. Our time and our energy have value. We deserve something more than to work unpaid for no gain—as students, as workers, and as people.
Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.