Money Management

An Open Letter to My College Peers: Stop Accepting Unpaid Internships

By | Thursday, September 05, 2019

Against my own better judgment, I’ve accepted multiple unpaid internships during high school and college. While I’ve enjoyed my experiences and learned important skills in each one, I’m still acutely aware that I’ve done months of work for absolutely no compensation. In fact, this summer, I spent thousands of dollars on travel and living expenses in New York City in order to put a single internship on my resume, as did some of my fellow interns. Even though I (very luckily) had the financial means to do so, I essentially paid to do free work. 

Part of this can be attributed to my choice of industry — nonprofits. Nonprofits are doing incredible work in almost every facet of civic life, and working for one now feels like a unique opportunity to have a positive impact. At each organization, I’ve believed strongly in their message and declined to even ask for a paid internship so they wouldn’t divert any of their limited resources to me and instead would spend them fighting the world’s evils. I felt that my stable family finances meant that I didn’t necessarily need the money, so I shouldn’t bother to ask. 

Now three months older and wiser, I know that my work should have been compensated. Assuming that any form of payment — whether it be a formal salary or even covering travel costs — was off the table was a mistake, one that cost me a lot of money. My future internships, nonprofit budgets permitting, will be paid. And friends of mine felt the same way I did — in fact, when proofreading this article for me, one friend couldn’t believe how accurately I described her own internship experience. They feel they’re lucky to even be offered an internship at a respected nonprofit (hello, impostor syndrome).

The statistics about women not getting raises and other incentives at work because they don’t ask are oft-repeated (as economics professor Linda Babcock has observed, men are four times more likely to request a raise, and they ask for more money when they do so). I quickly began to question whether this disparity extends beyond the post-grad workplace and into the unpaid internship ecosystem. Why are so many women working for no pay? 

The facts

Recruiting and research firm Intern Bridge, Inc. surveyed nearly 28,000 college students and revealed that 77% of unpaid internships are held by women. Most people accept the existence of unpaid internships because they supposedly lead to paid work, which, as Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic writes, isn’t even true. By senior year, students with paid internships garner job offers 63% of the time, while unpaid interns receive them only 37% of the time — almost the same level as students who never had an internship at all. And although I’d consider my own internships great learning experiences and exciting windows into my professional future, they may end up being worth very little. A resume booster may not be worth the time, energy and cost an unpaid internship demands.

Potential reasons for this disparity

Intern Bridge, Inc. indicates that social service, social justice and environmental industries tend to have greater proportions of female employees. These industries tend to be not-for-profit, and therefore may offer fewer or no paid internships. There is a lot of complexity in why women are attracted to fields with lower salaries — one major reason is their chosen fields of study in college. Instead of entering business and engineering degrees, women statistically choose social sciences and arts more often. 

One important question I asked myself when applying for internships was whether I’d feel comfortable and welcome around the office. A major factor in safe and inclusive work environments is the hiring and elevation of female employees. Unfortunately, in many high-paying fields such as STEM and business, there are greater barriers to female entry and promotion than in more female-dominated fields. Essentially, college women may choose not to apply or accept jobs within male-dominated industries because of the lower diversity and potential for an uncomfortable work environment.

Another issue may lie with the perception of women — especially college-aged women — in the workplace. There is a lot of data that suggests women are seen as more altruistic, which may influence employers’ perception of female interns, especially in social services. One study found that women are expected to behave in a more altruistic way than their male counterparts by early adolescence. Women are also more likely to volunteer their time in general, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gender stereotypes and socialization no doubt play into how women, and specifically less established younger women, are perceived in the workplace. College-aged women in internships may be viewed more as helpful volunteers than apprentices or students learning the basics of an industry. 

How can we solve the problem?

One of the major problems, as I previously mentioned, is that women undervalue themselves in workplace financial situations. This was my first mistake — not asking at all ensured that I wouldn’t even receive a MetroCard as compensation.

Interns are also important to most companies and organizations. They provide a steady stream of students looking to prove themselves, willing to take on mundane day-to-day tasks that make an office function. The ecosystem of unpaid internships ranges from purposefully exploitative to a function of limited resources, but in almost all scenarios, becomes a financial burden for the interns themselves.

Interns should expect to be paid for their work, no matter what, as all workers should. Socioeconomic status, gender, or the perceived importance of one’s work shouldn’t preclude them from being compensated for their time. An unpaid internship is often only a viable option for those in the upper tax brackets and is significantly less likely than a paid internship to lead to a job offer down the line. And the onus should be on companies and organizations to make internships a viable financial option for individuals from all backgrounds, but until that happens, we have to ask for what our time is worth.

Internships are great for a lot of reasons: they acclimate you to the workplace environment, offer an opportunity to test out different fields without a long-term commitment and provide an enriching learning experience. But at the end of the day, as the great Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, experience doesn’t pay the bills.

Julia is a student at the University of Florida.

Image via Unsplash

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