Thursday, February 14, 2013


Because the topic has interested me for so long, after writing about gender and unpaid internships for a wider audience, I did take a close-ish look at the comments, and have reflected on some of them here. Not, this time around, to apologize for having dared say my piece before a mass audience. I'm getting used to the scale of this, but am curious to see others' reactions. I haven't quite kept up with all of them, but there is one point I believe must be addressed:

Many feel that I missed the big picture, namely that unpaid internships are unfair to those from poorer families. (That they're often illegal fails to compel, because then you'll get libertarian sorts arguing that if these arrangements are voluntary, it's the law that's the problem.) While the general unfairness of life for those from poorer families is a point worth repeating, this is not the strongest case against unpaid internships. Against the ridiculous cost of going to college, yes - that very much is the rich getting richer, given that it still helps to go to college (and then some) to get a job, given the difference between graduating with and without debt. Against unpaid internships, no.

So it's not that I forgot to mention this, or that I don't think poor kids getting screwed over is an important social-justice issue. Indeed, as I say in the post, these internships are not of much use in helping you get a job. I'm not convinced that unpaid internships are this great destroyer of social mobility. Social mobility's lousy for other reasons.

Are they needed to break into specific high-influence fields? (This post is in part a longer response to Caryatis's comment here.) They're certainly perceived of in that way, and obviously there are individuals who believe that the connections they made and skills they learned at unpaid internships got them a paying job in their desired area. It obviously sucks to feel that you're missing out on an opportunity, even if in truth, employers only care about proper work experience, and may even prefer candidates who had real builds-character jobs. (I don't believe I've personally been held back by not having ever had an unpaid internship, but who knows - maybe if I'd had one I'd now control the media.) But I think we forget - and this I also mention - that many who had a chic internship and then got a chic job had connections in the first place. I'd like to see (or do?) some research on how many paying entry-level jobs in journalism/publishing/etc. go to ex-unpaid-interns, on how many people with positions of power at these orgs started as unpaid interns.

But also, compensation for work is not something one is only owed if one would be out on the street without it. That's the housewife connection. The gender angle. It's wrong to not pay a female employee, or not pay her properly, because she's got a husband who earns enough for the family. It's extra-wrong not to pay a female employee because she might not need to work to eat, and this is just being assumed on account of she's female, and lo and behold, she's not even married in the first place, or she is and her husband is an aspiring basket-weaver. But once paying women less/nothing becomes the norm, it becomes more difficult for any woman to get paid properly for her work.

What's bizarre is that this continues, only now the assumption is more that the parents/loans of a young woman will foot the bill. And... this does end up screwing over those who don't have some other source of cash. But it's not all fun and games for those who are working unpaid and still able to eat. Being channeled into a path where economic self-sufficiency always seems within reach, but never is, isn't a fluffy non-problem, even if there's a roof over your head, even if you're living in splendor. It's this odd quasi-intersectionality, a branch of misogyny that's about hating "rich girls," but that extends to girls, women, who aren't even rich.


Flavia said...

Re: internships and breaking into high-influence fields:

From a sample size of exactly two, 100% of the people I know who work in fashion did not start out in fashion. They moved in sideways, through connections made in their jobs in law, consulting, etc. One of them did do some unpaid journalism/social media work while making connections and establishing herself in the field--but only on the side, while still employed elsewhere full-time, and the breaking in period didn't take that long. Working for free on a trial basis makes sense, often for both parties. Working for free indefinitely--and especially when it's doing bullshit low-level work--is ridiculous and unnecessary.

This is why I think your analysis of the gender angle is right on. When I worked in publishing, it was frequently remarked on that most men hadn't (and weren't) starting out in the field as editorial assistants, while virtually all women did. The men arrived from journalism, or direct from graduate school, or who knows where. They did what my friends in fashion did: parlayed unrelated or at best kinda-sorta related prior experience into a decent mid-level gig. And men seem better able to do this than women.

(Why this is, I don't know: do employers give men more credit for their experience at a younger age? Do more women assume that they have to start at the bottom?)

Daniel Goldberg said...

I do not mean any snarkyness at all, but there's no explanation in here of why the social justice issue isn't the most significant one regarding unpaid internships.

Phoebe said...


"When I worked in publishing, it was frequently remarked on that most men hadn't (and weren't) starting out in the field as editorial assistants, while virtually all women did."

I think something like this is true in 'female-dominated' fields more generally. The low-level positions may be held by women, making the market seem feminized, but if you look at who's running the show, it's still men. (There is a tangent about academia that comes to mind.) Certain fields are just weird like that, where it's kind of assumed (by the cynical?) that women who enter them are basically biding their time until Finance Guy Husband surfaces, and yet the women themselves really do see this as making careers for themselves... only to discover that even if whichever boss-positions exist, they tend to go to men.

"They did what my friends in fashion did: parlayed unrelated or at best kinda-sorta related prior experience into a decent mid-level gig."

This does make sense, and is probably the way to enter journalism as well. If you're at the point where you're comfortable pitching articles - both in terms of feeling confident in your work and in terms of not losing it when your pitches are rejected - then you get to be one of the people who writes for whichever publication, as opposed to someone who fetches coffee and maybe gets a chance to contribute something small at the end of a five-month stint.

"Working for free on a trial basis makes sense, often for both parties."

I think there are times when working for free makes sense, but never when it's work for a for-profit organization. I mean, my blog, despite a paltry attempt at ads, is working for free, and I have no regrets there. And volunteer work sometimes leads to paid work, but if it doesn't, one has at least volunteered for an org one supports.


I'm not sure what's not clear. If unpaid internships aren't a viable route to paid work, nor the real way to get an influential job, unequal access to these 'wonderful opportunities' isn't the problem.

Phoebe said...

Also, on how much internships help, or don't:

But also, if you just think of these things logically, someone who's already wealthy and well-connected, who would have gotten a glamorous job in the past, will still do just that. The new order hasn't changed this.