Unpaid Internships Are a Rich-Girl Problem—and Also a Real Problem

Pop culture has portrayed wage-free internships in fashion and art as the territory of spoiled young women—which makes it easier to ignore their real injustice.

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Unpaid interns, as seen on Bravo's reality TV show 'Gallery Girls.' (Bravo)

Fashion-industry blog Fashionista reported earlier this month that Occupy Wall Street's "Intern Labor Rights division" had made plans to protest unpaid internships in the industry at New York Fashion Week.

Illustrating the story was a photo of former reality-TV-star-portraying-an-intern Lauren Conrad, cheerily steaming some clothes in Teen Vogue.

If we were to pick the major social-justice issue of our time, it would probably not be whether Conrad was properly compensated at her "internship." But that's part of the problem: The longer unpaid internships are associated with rich kids and chic but low-grade tasks like hauling designer clothing across Manhattan, the more those who complain about their proliferation are in danger of being seen as clueless, whiny, or spoiled.

To many people, the face of the unpaid intern is already that of a young woman whose survival (and possibly It-bag) needs are already being met, and there's a reason for that. Unpaid internships are mostly taken on by women: Madeleine Schwartz reported in Dissent that three-quarters of the unpaid workforce is female. Unpaid work is also popularly associated with the fashion industry, in part because of shows like The Hills, but also because of the especially glaring hypocrisy of unpaid labor at companies that are not only for-profit, but also producers of expensive designer clothing.

This poor-little-rich-girl image was crystallized in Lena Dunham's portrayal of Hannah Horvath, an unpaid, post-grad intern in New York who, in the pilot episode of Girls, gets cut off by her parents and then fired from her internship when she requests pay. It's a startlingly accurate portrayal of a real-life problem: Interns who complain about not getting paid are often not understood as exploited labor, but as petulant whiners; bratty if they expect their parents to support them, but equally bratty if they ask their bosses to pay them.

Unpaid work exists, of course, well beyond creative fields and coastal glamor. One can be an unpaid intern with a Nebraska police department, or at a Minnesota restaurant. Young adults in general, particularly students and post-2008 college graduates, face a "job" market that doesn't necessarily promise an ability to pay one's own bills. But if unpaid internships continue to be so closely associated with Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, it's understandable that the issue would be ignored in favor of the plight of tomato farmers.

While many understand the intern to be well-off and female, the issue has traditionally been discussed in terms of class, not gender. But that's begun to change since Schwartz's essay. Schwartz draws a connection between unpaid office workers today and unpaid housework of mid-century married women—even when they worked outside the home, women were underpaid back then, too, and for a similar reason. They were "secondary breadwinners; they didn't need full-time jobs," she writes. "Any financial compensation—'pin money'—was incidental to their crucial place within the household." And like yesterday's housewives, according to Schwartz, today's interns must demonstrate "flexibility, submission, gratitude."

Back then, middle-class married women were sometimes viewed as greedy if they demanded appropriate pay for outside work—regardless of their household income—because it was assumed that they would still be living comfortably otherwise. Women as dependents became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That subconscious belief—that young, middle-class-seeming women are somehow automatically taken care of financially—has persisted to this day, and I believe it's this assumption that prevents even otherwise progressive sorts from taking action to prevent the rise of the unpaid internship.

Today, students and college-educated young women who seem as though they might have parental financial assistance (even if they do not) have proven an easy-to-exploit workforce. The expectation that one will be available to work for free extends beyond those from wealthy families, but evidently not to men, given their underrepresentation in this labor market. And women remain financially insecure for longer and longer, thanks in part to parental largesse and trust funds, but also in part to parental and individual financial struggle and debt.

A well-intended pushback against middle-class-white-woman feminism has led some progressives to see the non-payment of this set as yet another first-world problem. (See the comments here.) Yet as first-world problems go, this is a substantial one. Compensation for work should not be based on an employee's need, as a scholarship might be—let alone on an employee's perceived need, as subjectively determined by an employer who is, after all, looking to pay as little as possible.

There have always been other good reasons, too, to fight for women who worked outside the home to be paid for their time—even fabulously wealthy, "well-taken-care-of" women. For married women, spousal support can be precarious: Husbands can leave, die, or lose their jobs. Same goes for parental support. And many women, married and otherwise, find liberation and purpose in being able to support themselves—just like many men do.

But even if the concern for rich women's sense of self-worth or purpose inspires eye-rolls, is there anything progressive at all about the expansion of unpaid work? Unpaid internships may feel compulsory, and may be just that in some academic programs, but they are often unlikely to lead to paid work. The wealth and connections that are often helpful in snagging an unpaid internship may be more helpful than the internship itself in securing future success. Frequently, too, the justification for unpaid internships is that they can be educational. Yet the logistics of making sure one gets paid—doing things one would rather not do in order to have rent or at least coffee money, asking for a raise, following up with bosses when not paid—are much of what makes a first job educational.

We will only be able to successfully challenge the norm of unpaid internships if we move away from blaming the interns themselves. Female interns in particular are often taken to task for lacking marketable skills, perhaps for having studied feminist theory in college when the more feminist approach would have been engineering. But even if humanities-major jobs have always paid less, it is entirely different for them to pay nothing at all.

The availability of free labor makes the same work cost less. Postings stating that interns are "needed" might indicate that their work is, well, needed. Despite what popular images might have us believe, the problem with unpaid internships isn't that entitled young women are just hanging out in lieu of getting a job. It's that a certain, mostly-female population is signing up for what seems like on-the-job training, with no job in sight.