Sheryl Sandberg Should Know Better Than to Ask Interns to Work for Free

The fact that Sheryl Sandberg, who is beyond rich and whose mantra,"lean in," is in good part about demanding more money, is looking for someone to do work for free has set the Internet on fire with cries of hypocrisy. 

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For decades, companies have been "employing" interns to do work. But a spate of recent litigation has made many many organizations wary of using college students to essentially perform real labor without paying them, all under the guise that interning is an educational experience. Apparently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's female empowerment non-profit, Lean In, has no such concerns.

The always hungry Internet monster exploded yesterday when it discovered that Jessica Bennett, an employee at Lean In and herself a one-time recipient of Internet pity after being axed by Tumblr, was looking for an intern. One who, you know, didn't want cash. Any cash. At all: 

After a series of people voiced their displeasure — including threats of violence from the likes of one Marcus Gummibear (pictured above) — Bennett clarified last night that she was really looking for a "volunteer":

Bennett isn't wrong. The Red Cross, for example, accepts volunteers and treats them kindly. But interning "volunteering" at Lean In isn't the same as, say, delivering food to the homeless. The kind of person who wants to "volunteer" at Lean In is probably looking to put the experience on his or her résumé and parlay that into a good job, perhaps through connections or recommendations. Bennett's "volunteer" would also be locked into a schedule for the next four months. 

Semantics of intern vs. volunteer aside, the real outrage isn't about Bennett, it's about her boss. Sandberg is wildly successful, having ascended to the top of a male-dominated tech sector. Not only that, but her book, Lean In, made her appear to genuinely care about the plight of women. "Maybe the best way to attack gender-based income disparities is to pay women literally nothing, to the extent that they stop caring?" wrote Valleywag's Sam Biddle. After Bennett updated her post, Biddle added: "Volunteer, editorial intern—call it whatever you want when it's unpaid work, right? Empowering."

Meanwhile, others have pointed out that Sandberg, whose net worth hovers around $500 million, sold $91 million in Facebook shares this week. Paying someone minimum wage (New York's minimum wage is $7.25), five days a week (beginning next week) through the end of the year would cost Sandberg about $5,220—roughly .005 percent of the money she made off her stock sale this week, or .001 percent of her estimated net worth. But that's not a proposal Sandberg is likely to, you know, lean into.

Too bad. By making the internship unpaid, Lean In ensures that the only people who can apply are already wealthy. As The Washington Post's Keli Goff wrote late last night:

Unpaid internships reward those who can afford to work — often full-time, no less — for free. Who can afford to do that? Privileged people, that’s who. People like Ms. Sandberg, whose father was a doctor, and people like her children, whose parents are multimillionaires.

Sandberg has already been sharply criticized for spreading a narrow gospel that only privileged women can follow. And perhaps this internship is more proof of that. But Lean In's "volunteership" is but one of the thousands of unpaid internships out there. A simple glance at Ed2010, a site that posts journalism jobs, readily confirms that:

Teen Vogue and Lucky both have listings on the site, as do Maxim and O. Almost all demand academic credit be given by the college in question, which is the legal loophole that makes the unpaid internship a feasibility. Harper's, we discovered yesterday, is proud of not paying its interns because, as a Harper's rep told The Atlantic Wire, its internship program sets people up for great futures.

In short, Sandberg is the sad norm, rather than an outrageous outlier. Working for Sandberg's company (when all of this blows over) is going to look great on someone's résumé. Sandberg knows that, too, which is why she can get away with it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.