Feminism | Posted by Chloe H on 04/21/2017
The Sexism Of Summer Internships
Almost every college student I know seems aware they should have at least one internship under their belt before graduating. So, as a current sophomore at UC Berkeley, I also started diligently applying for summer internships in February. I see an internship as a way to gain valuable work experience, make professional connections, and build my resume. Unfortunately, the quest to find a Bay Area internship has been incredibly stressful and disheartening—and has highlighted challenges that I will soon face as a young woman entering the workforce.
For a month, I spent hours scrolling through postings on Handshake (UC Berkeley’s platform for professional recruitment), LinkedIn, and Google. I scoured for internships I found interesting, for which I was qualified, and that were paid. The more time I spent applying, however, the more pessimistic I felt about my prospects in the job market. I soon became painfully aware of my limited technical skills: I do not know Java Script, basic HTML, or how to code, which limited my options. The internships I did seem qualified for included time-consuming application processes which also felt futile in light of the competition I knew I was facing. What’s more, out of the twenty-odd internships I applied to, only two offered paid compensation.
When I finally landed an internship with a nonprofit law firm in San Francisco, I was thrilled. However, my satisfaction quickly dissipated when I realized that while I would be working a full day—9 to 5—and commuting every day from Berkeley to San Francisco, I would be doing so for free. I felt uneasy about doing so much free labor, but my friends and family reassured me that most internships aren’t paid and that it would be a great “experience.” I am fortunate enough to have financial support from my parents, so I decided to take the internship to help my professional development and to solidify my interest in law. I also decided that I would work a minimum-wage job at a yogurt shop near campus to have spending money. I would also earn money from working for UC Berkeley orientation later in the summer, so I figured I at least wouldn’t hemorrhage money the entire summer.
Unfortunately, the disproportionate amount of women employed with unpaid internships is just the first harbinger of inequality they will face in the workplace. As many as 77 percent of unpaid internships are held by women in government, nonprofits, and regular companies. Men are much more likely to take paying internships at for-profit companies. This disparity can likely be traced back to the unequal gender makeup of college majors—more women still study subjects that lead to lower-paying careers than men. Since these interests often dovetail with lower-paid positions, most interns in these fields are unpaid. Meanwhile, a college sophomore interning at Facebook could potentially make a monthly baseline salary of $4,600, plus $400 multiplied by the number of college years they’ve completed. In 2015 only 32 percent of Facebook employees were female, and only 23 percent of senior positions at the company were held by women.
What’s worse, even some powerful and successful businesswomen who have advocated for women’s equality do not practice what they preach when it comes to internships. The billionaire heiress Ivanka Trump has unpaid internship positions in her company. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the founder of LeanIn.org, once had an unpaid internship program. While they agreed to develop a paid internship program, I find it particularly disheartening that a foundation with a mission to advance women in the professional world did not value the work of interns enough to pay them at any point in their existence.
Gender discrepancies in unpaid internships are certainly an issue, but so is class. Who works for free? People who don’t have to financially support themselves. Unpaid internships are unavailable to both men and women who need to consider their finances before their professional development, which is often the case for cash-strapped or indebted college students. The inability to even apply for unpaid internships unfairly professionally disadvantages low-income students and ultimately results in a lack of class diversity in workplaces.
While I still think internships can hypothetically be good experiences, they should not be limited to students who can afford to take away time and energy from their studies, jobs, and other obligations to apply to them in the first place, let alone then sacrifice their time and potential money earning hours to actually work. The exhausting, frustrating process of applying to internships has given me a glimpse of an extremely competitive, overwhelmingly sexist job market in which women’s work is valued less than men’s and a class divide is evident.