Entrenching inequality: the gendered impact of un(der)paid internships

Interns are some of the most vulnerable workers in any organisation. Not only are interns often un(der)paid, in many cases they work evenings and weekends; lack formal access to sexual harassment investigation procedures and conflict resolution mechanisms; are often explicitly excluded from policies that protect employees; and their interests are generally not represented within the staff union's mandate. It also just so happens that at many organisations dedicated to the promotion of human rights a significant majority of un(der)paid interns are women.

Un(der)paid internships are inherently exclusionary and exploitative. They are not only upholding a system of inequality, they are also further entrenching it. The term ‘unpaid internship’ is misleading, as there is always someone paying for this internship – just not the employer. In theory, an intern is paying for experience, training, and connections in their desired field of work in exchange for their time and labour. For this system to work, an intern has to have the financial means and/or the family safety net to afford to not be paid. Those who cannot afford it often already face marginalisation on the basis of, for example, their gender, disability, and/or working class-, migrant-, or ethnic minority backgrounds. Un(der)paid internships serve, therefore, as major barriers to those who cannot afford them, and are an active impediment to improving diversity within industries. This lack of diversity, which is reinforced by un(der)paid internships, is especially worrisome in the field of human rights as it undermines the principles at its foundation.

Historically, women are already expected to perform unpaid labour – whether it’s caregiving or housekeeping. With this in mind, we must examine how un(der)paid internships in the field of human rights reinforce gender and other structural inequalities. Individuals, in particular women from the global south and/or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, sometimes experience insurmountable obstacles to accessing un(der)paid internships and, therefore, career opportunities. In human rights organisations, where un(der)paid internships are disproportionately held by women - usually from the global north and from economically secure backgrounds - financial barriers persist and impair their enjoyment of social and economic rights. In some cases, interns endure harsh living conditions and/or have to work in full-time internships while also working jobs in the informal economy. These financial barriers have gendered aspects as well, as accessing health care - including sexual and reproductive healthcare - can be a challenge as interns are often not covered by their organisations’ insurance plans. 

Un(der)paid internships are symptomatic of how women and their contributions are routinely undervalued in the workplace, not just monetarily. A survey by the Fair Internship Initiative shows that nearly half of the unpaid UN interns have no formal rights and entitlements, including access to justice. In such contexts, where most of the interns are women, and many of the more senior employees are men, it creates a recipe for a wide band of exploitation, including sexual exploitation. Interns have very few options for reporting exploitative behaviour from their supervisors, as they are often explicitly excluded from these reporting structures. Even when these structures are in place, reporting seems futile: making a formal complaint could be a longer process than the duration of the internship itself. For an employee, it is already extremely precarious to report exploitative behaviour. As Sara Ahmed describes in Living a Feminist Lifesystems are in place to prevent individuals from making harassment complaints: 

“if you complain, you will hurt your career (this can work as a threat: you will lose the very connections that enable you to progress); if you complain, you will hurt [your colleague/superior] (whose reputation will be damaged); or if you complain, you will ruin a center or collective (often aligned with something critical and progressive).” 

Now imagine the potential for retaliation, on top of other practical barriers, that an un(der)paid intern, at the start of her career in the human rights world, faces when considering whether to report exploitative behaviour, including sexual exploitation. An intern who decides to report can easily be tarred as being difficult or delusional, a potential professional death knell in the human rights field with its small and highly networked community, and given the competitive nature of its labour market. Policies that protect interns from retaliation for reporting exploitation are often non-existent. As the system appears to place no value on protecting un(der)paid interns, there is no real belief within the community of interns in the value of reporting. Furthermore, both the exploitation and the lack of organisational protection are incredibly damaging to women’s sense of her own safety, and of her own value. This can have a profound impact when it occurs at such a formative stage of womens’ professional careers: a signal – some might say – that they are not welcome in or valued by their organisations.

The inequalities created by un(der)paid internships ripple out as the un(der)paid interns enter the paid workforce. Un(der)paid interns are less likely to receive a job offer after their internship, suggesting that they are not regarded as investments, but as cheap and replaceable labour. The median pay of an un(der)paid intern’s starting job is also significantly lower. This may be due to the fact that un(der)paid internships put job applicants in a worse position when negotiating a salary. For example, when applying for positions at the United Nations, one is required to list the annual salaries from their previous positions and this affects the salary levels of the entry-level positions. Moreover, while internships are often described as learning experiences, it is common for interns to support the core functions of a workplace and share similar roles to what would be performed in paid entry-level positions. ‘Employing’ un(der)paid interns who perform substantive work means that salaried positions are displaced. As un(der)paid interns are mostly women and are disproportionately disadvantaged on the labour market due to their un(der)paid internships, un(der)paid internships contribute to the gender pay gap. 

 This disadvantage at the earliest stage in a woman’s career in the already competitive labour market continues beyond retirement. Where graduates, who are overwhelmingly female, are undertaking multiple unpaid internships at the beginning of their career in the human rights field, and then transitioning into work for lower salary, they are reducing contributions to their pension and reducing the access to pension benefits (see: gender pension gap).

Data on un(der)paid internships generally, and its gendered aspects in particular, is extremely scarce. Arguably there is little impetus for human rights organisations that rely heavily on the work of unpaid interns to examine the human rights impact of this practice. More recently, however, there has been increasing attention on the position of un(der)paid interns, with the ILO and the Fair Internship Initiative publishing important research on un(der)paid internships. This research shows that paid internships are generally fairer and more accessible, as well as more educational and effective in finding employment after the internship when compared to un(der)paid internships. In 2018, the UN Joint Inspection Unit has reviewed the UN internships programme and concluded that, considering the vast majority of interns are women, revising the UN internship programme would be an excellent opportunity to transform it “into a leveraging tool to promote young talented candidates, with particular attention to women, in the labour market.” 

While the Pay Our Interns campaign and the Fair Internship Initiative are doing invaluable work to promote fair and accessible internships, un(der)paid internships in the field of human rights are still extremely common. The human rights community, and its institutions, must properly evaluate the sacrifices it is demanding from its interns, and interrogate which systems of oppression it is upholding through its internship programmes. While women are routinely undervalued in professional environments, one expects human rights organisations to be the exception and to shine in their commitment to gender equality and the explicit valuing of women's contributions. The reality is that this is not the case. Organisations rely upon and maintain a community of un(der)paid – mainly female – workers, further entrenching structural sexism. This cannot and should not continue. Interns are marshalling the limited power they have within the institutions to raise these issues. But we need allies, whose voices are accorded greater value within the organisations, to speak up. If your organisation is failing to properly pay its interns, raise it in meetings and call upon the organisation to consider its role in perpetuating exploitative practices, including the bolstering of systemic gender inequality. It's time to end un(der)paid internships. Join us.

Danielle Snaathorst has a background in gender studies and human rights. She has had the privilege of not being paid, while interning at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. There she co-coordinated a strike to call attention to the lack of fair and accessible internships within the UN system. She is hoping to attain her dream job in the near future: using law as a vocation for social justice, while earning above minimum wage. @danielle_snaat

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Sareta Ashraph