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Features | My unpaid internship was a sexist nightmare

Female interns are the ones cleaning the office, fielding physical advances, and working overtime – and that’s not okay

For most students, finding a summer job is often thankless and stressful. My case was no different. After many months of applications, and even more unanswered emails, I found myself at the end of the winter semester, with less than hopeful prospects.

Then, my dream job – at an international relations think tank, associated with one of the most well-known intergovernmental treaty organizations in North America – contacted me for an interview. I was thrilled, even though it was an unpaid internship. Thankful to be given something to do for the summer, I eagerly accepted what I thought was to be a life-changing experience.

Our role as interns was to write and edit content about international relations, plan events, and manage external research fellows. These research fellows submitted articles remotely, and our job was to edit their articles, and ensure they were published. We were promised networking opportunities, access to high profile events, esteemed references, and meetings with high-ranking Canadian officials. I thought that if I wasn’t going to get paid in money, my compensation would be the contacts, editing experience, and opportunities they promised. But, like so many unpaid internships, it was just another way to exploit young, eager students. In fact, it soon spiralled into a series of at first subtle, but then fairly explicit, acts of sexism, which took a serious toll on my wellbeing throughout the summer.

Alleging discrimination on the basis of gender, and questioning the legality of an unpaid internship, is a serious matter. Each province has its own employment standards legislation, which are enforced with varying levels of diligence. In Ontario, where I completed my internship, unpaid internships that are not part of a school program or professional training must meet six conditions. These include that the training must be “similar to that which is given in a vocational school” and must be “for the benefit of the individual.” I’ve chosen to keep my name, and the name of the organization, out of this article. It’s not because I’m unsure about my story, but rather because, as a young woman, speaking up about sexism and pointing my finger at a powerful organization could end my career before it’s started.

Like so many unpaid internships, it was just another way to exploit young, eager students.

I recognize that I came to the internship from an extremely privileged position. I am a cisgendered, able-bodied, white woman, who had financial support from my parents throughout the internship. They have always encouraged me to accept positions that could help shape my career, rather than focus on earnings, and I am, and always will be, extremely grateful. Not many students are in the same position as I am. Often, students have to sacrifice unpaid internships that could assist in their career in order to accept paying jobs to finance their education. Even my experience as a white woman differs from the experiences of racialized women, who have to overcome additional prejudice in order to be given the recognition they deserve for their work.

“Smile more”: the male gaze and double standards

At first, the sexism was understated. I was called “my dear” by one of my bosses. Then, senior male staff would comment on my appearance and the appearance of other female interns. However, it seemed that these ‘compliments’ only came on days where one was wearing a particularly flattering dress, or a full face of makeup. One day, I came into the office in a flowery sundress and bright lipstick, as opposed to my usual black-on-black outfits. Throughout the day, I received comments about my outfit that made me incredibly uncomfortable, especially when they turned into comments about my body. On other days, the comments focussed on my demeanor; if I was having a bad day or was focused on my work, I was told to “smile more.”

Being assessed and ‘validated’ according to my physical characteristics was alarming. According to activist and writer Bené Viera, “Men tell women to smile because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for their pleasure. Men are socialized to believe they have control over women’s bodies.” It made me feel that it was more important for me to look happy and pretty than to be diligent and competent, and that my work did not matter as much as my male colleagues, who didn’t receive this treatment. Although there was gender parity among interns, it was clear that the men were almost exclusively given preferential treatment at the office. In some cases, my boss went out of his way to put male interns in contact with high-ranking professionals, or give them exclusive interviews with prominent people for their articles.

Throughout the day, I received comments about my outfit that made me incredibly uncomfortable, especially when they turned into comments about my body.

As a nine-to-five unpaid internship, our job requirements were quite demanding – but on top of this, the female interns were pressured to complete other services, such as tidying the office space or going on coffee runs for our boss. This expectation of servitude and pleasing authority is inherently sexist, but sometimes it wasn’t as explicit as my boss telling me I needed to clean the office because I was a woman. Over a lifetime of being expected to provide emotional and domestic labour for free, the inclination toward servitude is so deeply ingrained that women often take on these extra tasks without being told to. But women’s internalized sexism doesn’t exonerate our bosses from being complicit in enforcing a sexist division of labour. Our bosses averted their eyes from the clear fact that women were doing more work, and avoided calling attention to the situation, or asking male interns to pitch in.

Other female colleagues experienced similar treatment – most commonly, they complained about having their opinions consistently dismissed. At times, there were physical advances, including unwanted touching, and one female intern received an unsolicited gift from a senior male colleague – which turned out to be books about ancient Roman sex culture. Female interns were held to higher standards, with little recognition of the value of our personal contributions. Assignments that would typically take a week to complete, when assigned to a woman, would be “needed by the end of the day.” This often resulted in women staying after hours, or working on weekends to make sure such projects could be completed on these unrealistic timelines. Sometimes – after the fact, of course – we found out that these assignments were meant to be done by our boss. Delegating these tasks to women, when our bosses knew women in the office were more inclined to go out of their way to please authority, was capitalizing on internalized sexism rather than seeking to deconstruct it.

One female intern received an unsolicited gift from a senior male colleague – which turned out to be books about ancient Roman sex culture.

On a personal level, addressing workplace sexism is demoralizing and exhausting. It is hard to enter an environment each day, knowing that your work will not be valued as highly as one of your male colleagues. It is frustrating to have your experiences dismissed by those around you, just because they don’t feel impacted by the sexism themselves. By the middle of the summer, I struggled to get out of bed in the morning and lost the motivation to participate in social activities outside of the workday, because my time at the internship was both mentally, physically, and emotionally draining.

Institutional irresponsibility

The easiest way to fit in among my colleagues was to comply with the political orientation of the think tank, which leant heavily towards the right. Despite the fact that the organization claimed to be non-partisan, it was clear that there would be negative implications for anyone whose politics deviated from the dominant Conservative rhetoric of the office. This enforcement of Conservative politics started, ironically, with restricting freedom of speech. I was tasked with writing weekly blog posts about gender and international relations, which often included analyzing international relations through a feminist lens. I was told by my boss’ boss that some members on the Board of Directors “did not feel that my content matched well with their mandate.” In other words, I was forced to alter or soften my opinions, because I was too left-leaning. I was also told to replace the word “patriarchal” with “misogynistic masculine” in an article about sexual assault on college campuses, because I was told that “patriarchy could be good.” Sexism exists – that isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. And yet, my feminism was constantly questioned and dismissed, by a group of directors who were predominantly rich, white men. I felt like my ability to do my job, which included being able to write without fear of repercussions, was being undermined by an ‘old boys club,’ to which I didn’t belong.

Despite the instances of sexism I’ve outlined, my bosses often told me that I should be thankful for the “incredible opportunity” I was being given, and to just ignore these advances. When I spoke about the sexism to friends and family, some even told me that since the president of the organization is a woman, that workplace sexism couldn’t possibly exist. However, what people fail to recognize is that just because women occupy positions of power, that doesn’t mean that they are willing to advocate for women’s rights in the workplace. High-profile women have more to lose, and face even greater disincentives for speaking out against sexism. Often I’ve found that women in these circumstances can be hypercritical of young women in their field, out of an altruistic, though misguided, attempt to “toughen them up” – since they know that workplace sexism doesn’t cease to exist at higher levels.

I was told to replace the word “patriarchal” in an article, because I was told that “patriarchy could be good.”

The ideal female intern is flexible, submissive, grateful, and people-pleasing. Unpaid interns are often required to show enthusiasm for any task given, regardless how demanding or thankless the job may be. The phrases, “thank you for the experience” or “I appreciate the opportunity” became my go-to response, even as they felt hollow in my mouth. Unsurprisingly, this expectation of obedience mirrors those that women face throughout their lives, in both personal and professional relationships. While the illicit nature of unpaid internships makes it difficult to collect demographic information, a 2014 study estimated that as many as 300,000 Canadians were working for free, the majority of which were young women.

Unpaid internships, on their own, are exploitative and often illegal (as mine, arguably, was). But they take on an even more worrying overtone for women. In Dissent Magazine, Madeleine Schwartz writes, “The insecure and low-paid jobs traditionally associated with women have grown as the type of employment usually associated with men – regular, unionized and stable – has declined.” Unpaid temporary internships are the most recent manifestation of this trend, which “places workers in a historically feminine position,” says Schwartz. There’s an incredibly long history of women being unpaid or underpaid for their work. An online resource, developed by Sundari Anitha from the University of Lincoln and Ruth Pearson from the University of Leeds, chronicles how certain jobs became the domain of women, and were thus able to be assigned lower wages. In the post-war reconstruction period of the late 1940s, “The welfare state created many job opportunities in what was seen as ‘women’s work,’” write Anitha and Pearson. “Jobs were available in the newly created National Health Service for nurses, midwives, cleaners and clerical staff. Banking, textile and light industries such as electronics also expanded during this period and provided women with opportunities in clerical, secretarial, and assembly work. Jobs were still strictly segregated by gender and routine repetitive work was categorized as women’s work for women’s (lower) wages.”

Women aren’t simply underpaid, they’re also unpaid. According to a report released in March by Oxfam Canada, women perform almost twice as many hours of unpaid work each day as men do. Domestic work like cooking, cleaning, childcare, and emotional labour – all of which is taxing and requires a high level of skill – is not considered ‘real work’ and is thus supposedly undeserving of pay. Making female interns run for coffee or pick up trash at the office, and then failing to pay them, participates in a legacy of the value of women’s work being downplayed or denied entirely. How can female interns – already in a precarious work situation – speak up against such deeply ingrained expectations that women should work for free?

Unpaid internships strip the intern of any agency to advocate for themselves, since from the time they’re hired they’re positioned as worthless and disposable, not even deserving of minimum wage. The premise of an unpaid internship is that ‘you’re lucky to be here,’ rather than ‘we’re lucky to have you.’ This disempowerment is further enforced by a fear of termination, or getting a bad reputation. In small circles of Canadian political think-tanks, earning a reputation as ‘difficult’ or ‘lazy’ early on could be career-ending. And this enforced gratitude implants the idea that young people should be grateful for whatever work opportunity comes our way – no matter how precarious, unrelated to their interests, or badly-paid it is. As a result, many young people hop from one unpaid internship to another throughout their early twenties, never allowed to acknowledge the worth of their work.

How can female interns – already in a precarious work situation – speak up against such deeply ingrained expectations that women should work for free?

Many people in favour of unpaid internships argue that interns actually cost companies or organizations money, since it takes time to train them and they often only stay for a few months. These people hold that the benefits of experience, contacts, and skills-training are invaluable to the intern, worth far more than money. First, this is incredibly classist – to say that a line on one’s resume is more “valuable” than a paycheque ignores that many people need a paycheque to support themselves. Second, to characterize all young people or temporary workers as a burden is incredibly dangerous, not to mention blatantly false. According to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, for an unpaid internship to be legal “The person providing the training [must derive] little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained” and “The individual [must] not displace employees of the person providing the training.”

It was clear to everyone at the association that without the interns, the organization would not exist. We did all the work – including tasks not included in our job description, like tidying up and getting coffee – for no reward. The benefits interns were promised, listed on the association’s website, turned out to be nothing more than a sham. At all the ‘networking opportunities,’ I was expected to be working, rather than talking to people in my field. The only high-profile events interns were allowed to attend were the ones we organized ourselves – without a budget, I should note. I still don’t have the reference letter from the chair of the association that was waved in my face as a key reason to accept unpaid work. Our bosses know that there are droves of young political science students who need experience to progress in the field, and are thus willing to work for free. They exploit that to no end.

Broader implications, and steps forward

If we’re talking about sexism in politics, let’s address the cheeto-coloured elephant in the room. In the 2016 American federal election, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign has been blatantly, unapologetically misogynistic. From his remarks about Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s menstruation, to his intensified criticism of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign based on her husband, former President Bill Clinton’s actions, to his lewd comments depicting sexual assault, his aggressive disrespect for women is unquestionably dangerous. That so many Trump supporters are willing to overlook (or even celebrate) these vulgar comments about women and their value in the workplace, normalizes and condones sexism. Even though both Kelly and Clinton are imperfect, their gender should not be grounds to attack their character and invalidate their capacity to do their jobs.

Why does such blatant discrimination still exist within politics, particularly? In 2012, the Atlantic reported that, on average, female Republican staffers in the U.S. Congress make $10,000 less than male staffers. A 2015 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that only 7.1 per cent of Senate staffers were people of colour. Accordingly, there are even smaller numbers of women of colour represented. In a viral picture of Republican interns posted by GOP Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, the interns were apparently all white, and mostly men. This sparked the #InternsSoWhite campaign, which addressed the severe lack of racial and gender diversity on the Hill. Although the Democratic interns represented a somewhat more diverse group, the barriers towards achieving success – and being compensated fairly – within politics is far greater for women, and women of colour in particular.

To start, interns should be paid a fair salary for their work. According to an article published by Rabble, “unpaid internships are illegal in most provinces, but provincial labour laws protecting interns are poorly enforced. One exception, however, is Ontario – due to pressure from a coalition of groups and student activists, the provincial government was forced to crack down last September.” In Ontario alone, as of April 2016, the government has recovered over $140,000 CAD in in wages owed to interns. Although this is a gross under-representation of how many interns go unpaid, it’s a first step in eliminating the classist component to internships. If internships are made financially accessible to everyone, then the representation of marginalized groups will increase – since racialized, disabled, and LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate number of Canada’s poor.

If internships are made financially accessible to everyone, then the representation of marginalized groups will increase.

Ideally, quotas wouldn’t be necessary in order to include women and other marginalized groups in internship programs. Quotas often make women feel like institutional placeholders, rather than qualified individuals. Instead, hiring panels should look to hiring a cohesive team, in which individuals with different skills and leadership styles can coexist in a workplace environment. However, I acknowledge that quotas can be helpful when hiring panels are made of people who don’t actively question their own ingrained biases. In other cases, quotas can seek redress for the fact that people from marginalized communities may have grown up without the same access to resources and education that others have.

Lastly, for interns like myself, who find themselves to be mistreated in their workplaces, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Talk to your coworkers, friends, family, or legal counsel. I found that the more I engaged my colleagues with feminism, the more open-minded they became. That being said, for some people – especially women of colour, or those who face intersecting oppressions – “standing up for yourself” means facing a very real threat of violence, ostracization, or punishment. Looking back, I wish I were more vocal in calling out workplace sexism, but I feared professional ruin. I also regret not learning about my rights through the Employment Standards Act earlier, or taking what steps I could to empower myself within an inherently disempowering situation. At the end of the day, your worth as not just an intern, but an individual, is far more important than a reference letter.


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