The Vagenda

Something For Nothing: How To Be A Good Intern

Jezebel called them ‘the happy housewives of the working world’. Graduate Fog discussed the constant calls for them to present themselves as ‘enthusiastic, submissive and obedient’. And Company magazine dedicated one of their features this month to celebrating their continued existence. It was called ‘How To Be A Good Intern’ – and, as one of the most vocal users of unpaid work by young people, we shouldn’t take their so-called advice lying down.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Company isn’t famous for wading into political debate; its highest trending article on its website is at the time of writing ‘WHAT DO YOUR SPOTS SAY ABOUT YOU?’ This means that they either only just discovered biology, or Katie Holmes’ Most Recent Whitehead is interviewed being all, ‘That bitch is so crazy, I’m sorry I ever even pustulated on her greasy forehead’. I can’t be bothered to waste the finger-clicking energy on finding out, but either way, I think you’ll agree the point still stands. Company is to economic discussion what George Osborne is to burgers: a total fraud, who eats your money and then lies about where they got it.
‘How To Be A Good Intern’ is a feature written by ‘fashion writer’ Alexxsia Elizabeth, who describes herself as ‘a former Company intern, and… the person who hires our interns’. She starts off by stating ‘I’d love to say there are three golden rules. But I’d be lying. There are hundreds’. These apparently include ‘my god, please do SOMETHING interesting with that email subject line – Application For Work Experience is literally on repeat in my inbox’; ‘If you don’t know what Twitter is (or how it works) then don’t bother getting out of bed (certainly not if you’re coming in to Company HQ)’; ‘You’ve heard of a bedside manner for doctors, well there’s definitely intern-to-boss manner too. Remember you’re not there to have a natter, there’s work to be done’; ‘Ask yourself before you interrupt – can I Google it?’, ‘Learn who [in the office] likes decaf soya flat whites or who prefers their peppermint tea bag left in. You could even match types with their name/extension number’; ‘Don’t expect flattery and praise’; and – my personal favourite – ‘A common mistake people make about unpaid internships is the assumption that they are ‘working for free’. At a recent Company Fashion Forum, stylist and presenter Angela Scanlon told the crowd to view internships as ‘free training’ rather than, say, slave labour’.
Well, Alexxsia’s given me a lot to work with here. And I’m pretty sure the term ‘slave labour’ should never be casually employed after the word ‘say’, unless the sentence is something like ‘Vagenda writers say slave labour is being used by Company magazine and they’ve tried to cover their arses by writing a feature about it but they included tips on how you should memorise the people in the office who drink soya flat whites and also said that you shouldn’t talk to anyone and you should keep smiling through your tears while you arrange shoes in alphabetical order for hours which is apparently the sort of free training which will come in supremely useful during your future career in fashion and/or media but would actually only prepare you for a lifetime of standing submissively in the face of hopped-up overprivileged fashion junkies screaming in your face about their 3pm coffee while you go home at night and cry yourself to sleep about making a tin of tuna last for a week’. Or whatever.
Because even Alexxsia contradicts herself. How can memorising the peppermint teabag ritual of a Features Editor count as ‘free training’? How can a forum run by people who all rely on unpaid interns to collect their hefty salaries every month (hello, Company Fashion Forum) have anything meaningful or objective to say about unpaid internships? How can an internship be recast as a positive experience to build upon workplace skills when you have to ask yourself ‘Can I Google it?’ before you dare to interrupt any of the bigwigs who don’t pay your wage? How can an entire generation of women open one of the most successful female-run magazines in the UK and read a rant from Alexxsia Elizabeth on how ‘Application for Work Experience’ is a woefully inadequate email subject line, or how you shouldn’t bother ‘getting out of bed’ if you don’t have a Pinterest account, when a massive gender pay gap continues to exist which can be partly explained by the fact that young women are a lot more likely than young men to work for nothing at all? How can Company magazine dare to even condescend their readership with ‘career tips’ which include remembering your boss’s favourite kind of cappuccino, all the while preaching that interns should be grateful for the opportunity to know it? In other words: why the hell aren’t they on our side, and why are they YELLING at us about it?
Unpaid internships matter. They matter on a number of levels, for all people, but they particularly affect young women: they are more likely to exist in female-dominated industries such as the media and the fashion world, and even outside of these spheres, women are more likely to be working for free anywhere. They matter because the ‘ideal intern’ is usually presented as a submissive, unassertive, obedient, compliant, grateful, adaptable, brainlessly enthusiastic young girl with a ponytail, a trust fund, and a rich and powerful boyfriend. They matter because Company magazine reckons they’re giving something back by employing unpaid labour, and that they couldn’t afford to fork out minimum wage to the handful of women who manage to get their foot in the door at ‘Company HQ’ every year, while they literally just flew their entire team out to Ibiza in order to draw an online map of ‘the best places to party’. They matter because if you don’t withdraw regularly from The Bank of Mum and Dad, and you don’t have friends or family to stay with in central London, then you can’t even afford to take the necessary unpaid internship for the next step on the jobs ladder.
Alexxsia, dude. They matter because like, persistent gender pay gap. Nepotism. Stereotyping. Sexism. Humiliation. I know you’re safe now, but they’re still making you play their game by coercing you into endorsing their crappy system via the medium of the written word. 
Come and join us on the pink side, Alexxia. I’m disappointed in you but I understand that you shouldn’t hate the player, so I’m hating the game. And I know you have to pay your bills – but if you pour that double shot soy milk chai latte over your boss’s head right now and leave ‘Company HQ’ forever, your soul might feel a little brighter. 

One thing’s for sure: you’ll never, ever have to ponder what your spots say about you again. Is it any wonder that the intern at Tatler decapitated their dog in the doorway?

Disclaimer: Tatler denied claims that the intern was the one who walked the Tatler dog to his unfortunate death. But hey, doesn’t it make a funny ending?

14 thoughts on “Something For Nothing: How To Be A Good Intern

  1. I have REAL issues with the phrase ‘hire an intern’ if they’re unpaid. For me, ‘hiring’ constitutes an exchange of a contract and money for services. If there’s no money, there’s no hiring.

  2. lole:

    ‘A common mistake people make about unpaid internships is the assumption that they are ‘working for free’.

    This is sublime doublespeak. George Orwell would be unhappily proud.

  3. I’m really confused about Company hiring unpaid interns – employment law is very clear: if someone is performing the duties of a worker (i.e. not just shadowing) then they must be paid at least minimum wage. This isn’t optional. Charities are an exception to this as they can have volunteers and ‘voluntary workers’, but Company definitely isn’t a charitable organisation. Might point Intern Aware in the direction of this, if they don’t know about it already.

  4. My parents were bankrupt, I had no money, no trustfund and I worked as an unpaid intern for 3 months, you get a second job and you work hard because, breaking news ladies it’s your CHOICE to do this, no one’s making you do it.
    After finishing my internship, because I had a brain and lacked a defeatist attitude, I was working as a production assistant at ITV 6 months later. Trust fund not necessary. And FYI, internships are rife in film, publication – pretty much every creative industry and this is NOT exclusive to women. So please, sistah, don’t pull that pay gap crap. Just stick with the fact you disagree with it because it doesn’t do everyone a favor, and because, in an ideal world, we’d all be getting paid for doing what we want, but there is the luxury of doing what you WANT, and there is a saturation point, because everyone wants to do what they want, so you make the decision as to whether you get paid doing something you don’t really want to do and maybe do what you want in your spare time and hope it starts to even out, or, you immerse yourself in what you want to do and sacrifice some of the money, and SOMETIMES, you get what you want and get paid.

    I think singling out and demonising one person, is also really really bad form, and a girl at that, seems as you seem to be repping the ladies so hard, why not send her a personal email and then write an anonymous article, or does your sisterhood not span that far?

    Oh and, just lastly, maybe if the girls follow Alexxsia’s advice, however much you have against people putting soy in their coffee, they might have a paid job, like Alexxsia at the end of it. Long game, it’s your choice if you play it.

    PEACE xxx

    • Instead of writing a sarcastic comment at the end of this article (which frankly has a very good point!), couldn’t you have just sent her a personal email and made this comment anonymous? Bad form…

    • Surely the point, Jade, is that it shouldn’t have to be such a long game. You note that industries like film and publishing are full of unpaid internships because they’re desirable industries in which to work – but as the author here would, I think, agree: that is the problem. Pointing out the injustices in a system like this does not equate to having a ‘defeatist attitude’, and pursuing independent journalism through web-sites like The Vagenda is an increasingly important alternative to being complicit in your own exploitation by companies which actually make money and therefore really out to be paying it to everyone who works for them.

      Moreover, while you’re right that aspiring workers of every gender are subject to the system of internships, the author is just as right to point out the historical (and persistent) tendency for women to undertake unpaid labor more frequently and for longer than men – whether this unpaid labour is formalized through things like internships, or whether it takes place in the home.

      Anyway, I’ll stop mansplaining things now, because I’m starting to sound patronizing, even to myself. I blame the end of term and marking withdrawl…

      To the original author of the piece – I thought this was a really well-considered and balanced account of an important current problem, though I would have been interested to hear your advice for a young woman facing the exact situation Jade describes – wanting to get into publishing and facing internships or… what exactly? Calling out the author of the Company article is totally justified, given that she has presumably been through this system and is now supporting it. But what would you say to young people who haven’t yet reached that stage?

    • Just the fact that you worked the unpaid internship (I did too) doesn’t make it an acceptable practice. If, at the time of finishing university and starting to think “well, what now?” I had a choice between a paid and unpaid internship, I know which one I would have gone for. But there weren’t any. So I spent a month doing thousands of little tasks, into the night, in a magazine, while the editors literally spent their days sitting at their computers and flicking through their Facebook newsfeed, then letting out a massive sigh whenever it was time to get up and spread a collection of clothes on the floor, then stand over it for an hour – ie. preparations for the fashion shoot. What did I get out of this internship? Well, I can fold clothes REALLY well. Unfortunately, I also ran up a massive debt over this month – and it was just a month! Some people do it for half a year! – which I’m still, a couple of years on, paying back.

      I’m sorry but how can you defend that?!

    • Jade: from one ‘creative industry professional’ to another, let’s be honest, they do take the piss and you know it. I get being defensive about it. Of course you will be: you did some time and are now a ‘production assistant’. Doesn’t mean you’re home and dry either. The rot continues all the way up. The existence of a ready and eager pool of unpaid labour screws over every single other person in that organisation outside of a few board room nobs. Short-term contracts; hours and hours of unpaid over-time; maybe some short-term perks like fancy trips, but often coupled with salary levels that are significantly below those of people doing the same job for a less glamorous name…

      in an ideal world, we’d all be getting paid for doing what we want, but there is the luxury of doing what you WANT, and there is a saturation point, because everyone wants to do what they want, so you make the decision as to whether you get paid doing something you don’t really want to do

      The problem of these industries being ‘over-subscribed’ is a cop-out for companies who can’t be arsed to put in place a decent recruitment structure. The creative industries would not fizzle into nothing if there were some more basic levels of legislation in place to stop exploitation. They might actually gain something from it. There are employers who manage to get around this oft-mentioned debilitating mountains of job enquiry emails with without recourse to underhand practices, e.g. talent schemes, taking people from college courses. Those people will actually have skills over and above those of arse-kissing.

  5. I am entirely with you on unpaid internships – to hell with them and with the system that makes them into a “choice” we have to make. I do, however think that “Ask yourself before you interrupt – can I google it?” is EXCELLENT advice for life. It almost excuses the crime of calling herself “Alexxxxsia.” But not quite.

  6. As a recent graphic design graduate hitting the job market I have been shocked at the number of unpaid or under paid internships out there. What really annoys me is how these business act like they are doing you a favour by offering to employ you for free! Why yes having to work my ass off for three months whilst all the time worrying about the debt I’m getting myself into and how I’m going to afford rent is exactly the kind of favour I was looking for. Oh you might dane to employ me at the end? sold!

  7. Here are some pointers for anyone that’s thinking about interning anywhere.

    - What is an internship?
    How does who your applying to define ‘internship’. ASK THEM. If the answer is not what you were expecting to hear, tell them what you thought your placement would be like, and ask if your being unrealistic. (So many people walk into a creative role these days and expect to be writing, editing, styling right away.) Starting this dialogue you can usually see a way to expand the role of intern and do something valuable (and hopefully employable in the future). If not, don’t do the placement. You have to ‘want to do something’ when working.

    - Its a foot in the door, NETWORK
    You can walk into some amazing places for free. My first placement was at Alexander McQueen!. I had a great time and became a senior designers first assistant in a week. Still in-touch with her. This was unpaid, but every-time I go for a job now its a great discussion point of how I ‘started out’. I got this by applying my first point (above). I saw were the studio was stressing, and went out of my way to make the life of the designers easier. To quote Alexxia, One of these tricks was to memorise how each designer liked their coffee.

    - The system
    Play the game. This is a tough pill to swallow when starting out, but the quicker you get on with it the better. You’ll soon discover there is no ‘fair system’ in business.

  8. I’ve never considered unpaid internships as a predominantly female challenge, as all those I’ve known take unpaid internships are men (8 including my boyfriend at a city council). Do you have any statistics which corroborate your assertion that more women are involved in such practices?

    I’m not saying I don’t believe you on that point, I just don’t see why it ought to be a gender-divided issue, unless you have the statistics to say it disproportionally affects women.

    Unpaid internships are unlawful and demeaning, and it would just take a national clamp down, enforcement of the law, in order to encourage all interns to take their ‘employers’ to a tribunal. Both my boyfriend and a good friend succeeded in their claims at an employment tribunal, and were back-paid for all the hours they worked (9 month and 6 months of internship). However the recent changes in legal advice and aid make this kind of thing ever more difficult. At the end of the day, the ‘employer’ gets some slave labour, for that is what it is, and if the intern gets something out of it, they likely to just swallow the injustice as necessary.

    The main scandal is the increasing frequency with which unpaid positions are advertised and used, resulting in companies having no need to offer paid, entry-level positions. Every unpaid intern precludes the possibility of a paid job being advertised. It is a vicious spiral downwards.

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