Business

Internet pitchforks come out for LeanIn.org as it attempts to hire unpaid intern

Sheryl Sandberg

Above: Sheryl Sandberg

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hubertburdamedia/

LeanIn.org tried to hire an unpaid intern, and the Internet is freaking out.

The “Lean In” movement was set off by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg who published a book calling for women to support one another and be assertive about pursuing career goals. The idea is that too few women hold leadership positions, and by forming community and encouraging dialogue, we can “change the trajectory of women” and “create a better world for everyone.”

These are lofty yet commendable words, although people are now questioning whether Sandberg is putting her money where her mouth is.

On Tuesday LeanIn.org editor at large Jessica Bennett posted a call for an unpaid editorial intern on her Facebook page.

“Wanted: Lean In editorial intern, to work with our editor (me) in New York. Part-time, unpaid, must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus! HIT ME UP. Start date ASAP.”

The post sent waves of righteous indignation ricocheting around the Internet. It attracted harshly worded comments (“this is shameful exploitation of anyone let alone women” dozens of articles (including this one), and a Change.org petition asking Sandberg to “‘Lean In to paying your interns.'”

Sandberg wrote in her book that we are no longer in the age of career ladders but rather career jungle gyms. Trajectories do not have to be linear. People can experiment with different roles and industries until they find a good fit. Internships are an important part of this idea. They provide opportunities for young people or those curious about other jobs to test the waters before accepting a full-time position. They also put students into professional settings where they can hone their skills, learn about real-world office environments, and connect with people who could help them down the road.

Youth unemployment recently hit an alarming 16.2 percent — more than double the rate of adult unemployment. Internships can provide many students with a much-needed edge in a highly competitive and tight market. As a result, internships themselves are highly competitive, even the unpaid positions. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), nearly 30 percent of college students take unpaid internships. Students are willing to take whatever they can get, and certain businesses have exploited this free source of labor, requiring them to work long hours without compensation and limited recourse for complaints.

Controversy surrounding unpaid internships arose this summer when two unpaid interns sued Fox Searchlight Pictures for violating minimum wage laws. A judge ruled that the studio did not foster an educational environment and should have been paying them for their work. NACE also found that interns who are paid are almost twice as likely as unpaid interns to get a job offer when they graduate. This issue is particularly relevant for women — three in four unpaid interns are women. It also gives an advantage to students from wealthy backgrounds who have parents to support them while they work for free.

Lean In’s recruitment of an unpaid intern seems hypocritical in light of all this information. Bennett posted a follow-up message on Facebook after the outpouring of criticism and said “This was MY post” and that “LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers.” While the caps lock is certainly an excellent way to drive home a point, Bennett is still a representative of an organization ostensibly working to life women up and promote the idea that they should be compensated fairly for their work. While it may be true that LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers, they often do not require a “regular schedule.”

To add salt to all these feminist wounds, Sandberg sold $91 million worth of Facebook stock last week. As ValleyWag pointed out, surely a teeny, tiny, fractional, minute portion of this amount could go toward paying a young woman a fair wage for services rendered. America still has a substantial gender pay gap — for every dollar a man earns, white women earn 77 cents, black women earn 69 cents, and Latina women earn 57 cents. I found that information on LeanIn.org, by the way. Sandberg wrote on LeanIn:

“There are many reasons why women receive lower pay, but gender stereotypes about competence and appropriate behavior are two factors that stand in women’s way […] This same social pattern influences salary expectations. A 2011 survey showed that long before they even hit the workforce, teenage girls expect lower starting pay than teenage boys. Because we link salary with competence, not only do women often have lower salary expectations for themselves, but others expect to pay them less as well.”  

Regardless of the fact that Bennett allegedly posted the listing on her own behalf, she is a representative of an organization that should be the first to pay interns, especially female interns, for their work. In startup world, it’s called eating your own dog food.


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