How Unpaid Internships Teach Women They Can't Expect Equal Pay

Tuesday, November 7 was a huge day for feminists. Women celebrated wins at the ballot box across the country — women who had previously been told to sit down, to be quiet, to squeeze themselves into shapes considered more acceptable. To preserve and build on those wins, we need to remove obstacles that stop more women like them from succeeding. That happens by making sure young women understand the value of their work: They must be paid fairly for their labor from day one of their working career, and that means eliminating unpaid internships.

Internships are important entrées into the working world, and are the foundation for careers like policy making and advocacy. As an intern, you learn valuable soft and hard skills and build a network of potential mentors and future employers. Unfortunately, unpaid internships serve as a major obstacle for less affluent people who don’t have the luxury of a “glass floor,” e.g. a safety net facilitated by their family’s wealth.

An unpaid internship in an expensive city like Washington D.C., can cost up almost $13,000, according to some estimates. Even co-sponsors of the Raise the Wage Act of 2017 don’t all pay their interns, including Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Sen. Bernie Sanders recently started paying interns $15 an hour.

Yet, there’s no denying how critical an internship can be for one’s career: The Chronicle of Higher Education found that HR professionals, managers, and even executives consider internships “the single more important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resumes” when looking to make hires.

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It’s bad enough to be forced to sacrifice a paycheck to get ahead professionally. For young women, however, the challenges of unpaid internships are compounded by being voiceless and unprotected by basic labor laws to curb sexual violence in the workplace.

“If you’re not being paid, you’re not considered as an employee, then you’re unfortunately sacrificing your right to not be discriminated against in a gross and disgusting way,” Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute, tells Bustle. “Recent developments and news coverage have shown how susceptible young women are to this kind of treatment. Unpaid internships compound these problems. Your first experience is one where you don’t have a voice.”

We should build better systems that have the capacity to support exceptional women.

Take Leanna, a senior in college. Born and raised in the Bronx, she’s getting ready to take on the working world. “You have to take the internship for the experience, but then you feel abused because they know they don’t have to pay you,” she tells Bustle, having accepted an unpaid internship experience putting together events near Washington D.C. to receive college credit to graduate.

Leanna’s experience has been normalized by a culture that encourages young women to do what they can to get a seat at the table — even if they are already trying to manage unreasonable amounts of debt. Leanna, for example, expects to graduate with about $60,000 in student loans.

The justification for these unpaid internships is that they lead to great jobs. That’s a myth, McNicholas tells Bustle: There’s no evidence that unpaid internships help better establish one’s career. In fact, McNicholas points to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which found college graduates who had paid internships were more likely to get a job offer. In addition, the salary offers were higher than their peers who had undergone unpaid internships.

“There’s nothing magical about an unpaid internship,” McNicholas says. “It’s an excuse to not pay people for their labor, and there’s nothing new about that.”

Let's be clear: The problem isn’t internships — it’s unpaid labor. Alexandria Ocasio, a progressive millennial running for Congress in New York in 2018, tells Bustle that paid internships are a great tool to expand economic opportunities to more people. In her experience, she says, “I quickly found that the more prestigious the internship opportunity, the less likely it was to pay at all, let alone enough to make ends meet. All work has dignity, but that dignity comes from work that’s paid enough to make ends meet.”

The phenomenon of unpaid internships is rampant in Washington D.C. There’s a running joke that the nation’s capital runs on unpaid intern labor, and that’s not hard to believe. Every summer, thousands of eager young people come to D.C. to take any kind of work experience they can get.

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Many of those interns help fuel Congress, where the injustice of unpaid labor runs rampant. Pay Our Interns, a D.C.-based bipartisan non-profit found that only 32 percent of Senate Democrats, and 51 percent of Senate Republicans pay their interns. The White House doesn’t even pay its interns.

As these interns offer their labor for free, they pile into group homes with other unpaid interns looking for cheap rent. Washington D.C. is the fifth most expensive city in the nation, where a two-bedroom apartment can rent for nearly $3,000 a month.

Mia, who does creative work for political campaigns in Georgia, tells Bustle she drained her savings to get her start in Washington D.C. “I knew the only way I’d break into politics was through internships, even as a 27-year-old," she explains. "It was the same as in film, where I was told it was a rite of passage and I had to do it. It instilled a pretty permanent belief that because I’m not worth getting paid, my work isn’t as good as others.”

Mia emphasizes that this isn’t just a Congressional problem, and she’s right. D.C.'s interns go on to become researchers, creatives, data wonks, and members of all the industries that make our government.

With an alleged sexual predator well on his way to the Senate, and several sitting members of Congress under investigation for allegedly engaging in sexual harassment, it’s clear we’re not doing enough to protect and empower young women. We're sending the wrong message from the get-go: They go mostly unpaid, and voiceless, in their first jobs as interns on the political world. Even Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has come forward: “When I was an intern I learned to avoid elevators, because elevators were when you were captured,” McCaskill told NBC News. “After one unfortunate incident in the elevator, I began taking the stairs everywhere I went in the state Capitol when I was there as a college student.”

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With all the bullshit women already have to deal with — not being paid a fair wage compared to white men, sexual harassment on the job, attacks on our health care and paid family leave, and low representation in management and leadership jobs — what if we revisited what a woman’s career looked like? Imagine if your ability as a woman wasn’t measured by proximity to a powerful educational institution with an endowment to support your internship, or enduring the advances of a predatory man. Imagine if we paid the interns, who aspire to become policymakers, to tackle the problems too urgent to go unfixed.

Imagine if we promoted more women instead of trying to explain our way out of a huge cultural epidemic. Hiring and promoting more women, according to Harvard Business Review research, is the best way to get at the root issues of sexual harassment at work. And to hire more women, we need to invest in their growth and make the jobs that impact our policies, our quality of life, more accessible and safe for the same women disenfranchised by these broken systems.

Ultimately, we should build better systems that have the capacity to support exceptional women.

November’s historic wins disrupted a lot of myths about what successful women look like. This is a prime opening to pave the roads for more candidacies like theirs, and one important place to do that work is at the beginning of many policymaker’s careers. We can set a better model that allows more women to rise. "There's power in numbers," McNicholas says.

It’s on us to push political organizations that support the health of our democracy both pay their interns a fair wage and pledge to have their supported candidates pay their interns, too. Organizations that recruit and support candidates can require them to pay their interns, by signing pledges in exchange for support. This should be a basic tenet in labor platforms for progressive candidates ahead of 2018.

We need to know, without equivocation, that our future elected leaders value the work we do, and will pay fair wages to interns. Because we value work, we should value the time it takes to perform it.

We celebrated these historic female wins on November 7 because they are the exception to the rule — rules intended to mark their successes as exceptions. From day one, young women are taught to gender and devalue their labor, to expect to make less than what we know we’ve earned. It's time to take a stand.