The Vagenda

Unpaid internships: Is our self-esteem too low to ask for pay?


I’m on yet another unpaid internship (three weeks at a national magazine, if you’re wondering). Lying in my shared dorm I read that women are more likely to work unpaid, for longer, than men. 
That Saturday I meet up with the editor of my student magazine. She’s working for free for a successful blogger. Her boss, apparently, wears diamonds and jets off to Portugal at a moment’s notice, while my friend is slowly nursing a glass of water and telling me in hushed tones about her ‘experience’. She’s in a worse position than me because she’s doing the fashion curcuit (I’m on lifestyle at the moment) and a lot of the women she meets don’t understand her. She tells me that one shop assistant simply refused to believe my friend could not afford to buy any of the designer label items she was reviewing. She was told to, “Just put it on your dad’s credit card.” 
Our male ex-editor, by contrast, is running a successful website building business this summer. Our other ‘senior’ male collegue is working for a financial news -sourcing agency, a paid job he also holds during term time. I e-mail my ex-editor in desperation and ask whether I’m being an idiot. I tell him, “I don’t feel like I deserve to be paid.” He says I should start up my own news site online. I tell him the market is too saturated. I don’t see how I could possibly stand out. 
Is this a low-self esteem woman thing? Y’no, part of the package of being a twenty-something girl? I feel like I spend a lot of my time trying to be Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, running around cities in stupid clothing and feeling incompetent. I wouldn’t dare ask for money or compensation from a publishing house, newspaper, or magazine. I’m just happy to be in an office working. I just want to write. I just want to work. 
We are told that we’re supposed to be these independent career women (in fabulous clothing) but we’re also told to be polite and non-invasive and helpful and cheerful. You perform the same dutiful style of service for your bosses that you used to for your husband, except now there are millions of you and no-one knows your name. 
So why do we still accept unpaid internships as a way of getting into the ‘nice’ industries (charity sector, magazines, tv, newspapers, publishing, government). Have you noticed it’s mostly the professional industries with more women than men who offer unpaid work? There are few engineering internships that don’t pay. And the unpaid internship culture only emerged when women started to enter the workforce in earnest. 
Sisters, we need to recognise that there is monetary value in the work that we do. I know a woman’s work is never done, but shall we at least ask for some expenses? Or failing that, take some tips from the boys, and break out on our own. Many other women have done it before us, we just need to have a little confidence.
- Rebecca

6 thoughts on “Unpaid internships: Is our self-esteem too low to ask for pay?

  1. “There are few engineering internships that don’t pay.”

    That’s because engineers are always in demand (and get paid very well, in case you fancy a career change) ;-)

    …whereas writers really have to hustle to get work!

  2. Great article. It’s the same in book publishing – you have to claw and crawl your way through months of unpaid drudgery just to get behind the velvet rope. Years ago, in my early twenties I was offered a job at a small independent publisher who I was literally falling over myself to work for. When they told me the salary, I politely pointed out that this would be just enough to pay for a wheelie bin to sleep in and a one-wheeled skateboard as transport. I was told by the Publishing Director (of an allegedly feminist bent), that my father should subsidise my London-life. Ummm…. yeah, okay. Needless to say, I did not take said “dream job”. Now, in my thirties, I have worked for twelve years in publishing, and I think I am pretty good at my job. I am now leaving for a new life of writing and consulting and yet STILL the little voice at the back of my head saying, “you won’t get paid, you aren’t good enough, you are just one voice in a thousand”. Maybe that voice is right (I always maintain a healthy pessimism) but it’s so true that women suffer from the whitterings of this voice so much more than men.

  3. I don’t think we should make sweeping generalisations about women lacking confidence. It may be a social class thing or even just a self-confidence thing for some individuals or certain competative creative industries. I’ve always expected pay for my work but I’m in boring finance so nobody is clamoring for a few jobs. I think employers have a “buyers market” in some industries whereas in others they have to compete for employees and will pay up accordingly.

  4. I was running a guided tour round a local museum for schoolkids today, as a volunteer. The education officer in charge said I’d done really well and was ‘superb’ so I asked if there was any freelance paid work going – I’m happy to volunteer and what I’m doing now was advertised as a volunteer position, but anything extra and paid would be good. And he said that he always believed in paying people for the work they do whereever possible, and would bear me in mind if there was any paid work going. So it’s always worth asking – especially if you know that you’re good at what you’re doing!

  5. I am in England on a working VISA and as such I have no recourse to public funds. Without benefits, and the desire to earn my own keep, I downright refuse to apply for any position that is unpaid. I have paid my dues working as a pool manager and swimming teacher full time on top of casual unpaid journalism work and supported myself through it all and find it so insulting when people tell me to rely on my parents money to buy frivolous things like expensive clothing when there are much more affordable, good quality options.

    I feel that unpaid internships are rather disgraceful and cheat not only the young people in need of valuable work experience but also the parents of the young people who must cough up their savings or work longer to support their kids. Entry level or internship income need not be much, but I see countless business valuing the replacing of the office flowers every week over the expenses of their employees. Putting it immaturely, it blows goats.