Updating the Nice Girl Problem: Unpaid Interns

Student in library

Britt Kidder

Everyone likes a nice girl.

She gets along with everybody. It’s really no surprise that everyone likes her, because she’s a good sport. When she has group assignments due in class she doesn’t mind doing a little more work than the rest of the group, especially if it helps her get a better grade. But she’s more than just nice, she’s a hard worker, and she’s smart. Her resume is packed with tons of internships she did over the summer breaks and the last few semesters. They weren’t paid internships, but the connections and the 1000+ hours of experience she gained are going to pay off for her later. Being the nice girl actually does pay off. Right?

No, actually, and that philosophy is probably going to cost her.

I wanted to discuss the Nice Girl Problem because I thought it would be a quick topic — an open/shut kind of thing that I already understood — however, the information I found kept conflicting with my argument about who today’s nice girl is and the kind of mess she’s in. The Nice Girl Problem I studied in Feminist Theory really applies mostly to our mothers, who were expected to provide unpaid domestic work and caregiving for children and elders, in addition to working outside the home. Much has been written about this in feminist studies, but it simply isn’t the Nice Girl Problem of today.

So who’s the new nice girl? Unpaid interns.

Coincidentally, I find that I am an unpaid intern writing about the problem of unpaid interns. However, I do not feel exploited because I was comfortable saying, “I think this will be a great experience, but I can only dedicate X number of hours a month because I need a paying job, too.” BAM! Not exploited. But — it’s also true that I asked my interviewer what she preferred first because I really wanted the position and I admit I wanted to appear accommodating (in other words, I wanted to seem nice). Lucky for me, she wanted to be accommodating, too, and encouraged me to pick a fair, balanced schedule. Now that’s what I call an unpaid internship!

But others have not been this lucky.

Christina Isnardi stopped playing nice when she petitioned NYU Wasserman’s Career Center to stop posting illegal unpaid internship postings on its website (see Fair Labor Standards Act), after it repeatedly placed her in exploitative working conditions. But even after 1,000 students signed her petition, Isnardi said the career center resisted removing illegal unpaid internships because it would lower “opportunities for some students to break into their professional fields.”

When Lihuan Wang fought back against her internship supervisor’s sexual harassment by filing suit against Phoenix Satellite Television U.S., the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York told Wang that because she was an unpaid intern she was not protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So, she lost.

Both women found themselves working in exploitative, unpaid internships and both women found that the system resisted their decision not to play along anymore. It’s interesting that we now expect to be compensated for childcare, eldercare and domestic work, but an unpaid internship — with it’s ever increasing work load expectations — is still fair game for a win-lose relationship. Even  Sheryl Sandberg, who famously urged women to ‘lean in’ to the rewards of career and leadership opportunities, fell a few feet off the pedestal when her Lean In non-profit solicited for an editorial intern to start in August of this year.

“Part-time, unpaid, must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through the end of the year. Design and web skills a plus!”

Interns are typically students providing labor — free labor in most instances — on the premise that they will learn about the industry they’re working in (or, like Lean In’s offer, gain some prestige). It’s like an apprenticeship, but it does not entitle you to a job with that company. But that’s OK because it’s the gained experience that really counts and that will help you land your ‘first job.’ Well, maybe it will. Did you have a paid internship or an unpaid?

A 2012 NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) study found that the chance of job offers increased 36% for students with paid intern experience, but only 1% for students with unpaid intern experience. So in this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad economy, how can we resist the urge to seek out experience, even when we know it exploits us? Isnardi writes:

“First, students can fight illegal unpaid internships by simply not taking them. We must become aware of our rights as interns and recognize that we are perpetuating our own exploitation,” said Isnardi. “Another way is through lawsuits. There are millions of unpaid interns who can file lawsuits, and if enough interns seek justice, the system may be brought down. Finally, more pressure needs to be put on local, state, and federal governments to enforce the labor laws that they wrote into law.”

In fact, that’s just what the Black Swan interns did. And they won. They didn’t feel like playing the nice girls either, maybe because they’re both men.

 

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