Lean in: the term has become synonymous with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her 2013 book that inspired a movement of the same name to encourage women to achieve personal and professional goals by “leaning into their ambitions.” With its talk of community, education and circles, of women supporting each other in small groups, the Lean In movement evokes an image of cozy partnership.
The reality is a little less idealistic, as revealed by a Tuesday Facebook post by Jessica Bennett, LeanIn.org‘s editor at large, about Lean In searching of an unpaid intern. Sam Biddle spotted this request posted on Tuesday:
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.
While a few respondents lunged at the chance (“sign me up!”), others quickly pointed out that “the sort of abilities you request take time, money and personal investment to be learned and that are [sic] student loans to be paid etc.,” Sofia Diogo Mateus wrote. By asking for someone “to have done all that and live in NYC, without pay on a permanent position,” Bennett’s announcement automatically “excluded an awful lot of people, namely those with less possessions and women included.”
This is great news. But it’s still worthy to note Bennett’s initial response. Rather than acknowledge that a position in New York requiring all those skills should be a paid one so anyone could apply (and not only someone who doesn’t have to worry about paying the rent, utilities, groceries and more), Bennett protested in a Wednesday follow-up post to “What Appears to Be My Entire Facebook Feed” that the announcement was
MY post, on MY feed, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let’s all take a deep breath.
“By Bennett’s logic, withholding wages from interns—or, sorry, ‘volunteers’—is fine while working for an organization whose main purpose is to fight wage disparity,” writes Emma Roller on Slate.
“I thought women should lean in and demand more money,” Michele Morris, wrote earlier this week in response to Bennett’s posting. “Unpaid work, be it internships for young women or volunteer positions for older moms, is exploitive. Shame on you.”
The Lean In movement has lofty aims. Its top editor’s request for an unpaid intern (“volunteer”) revealed that it can use some help to ensure that it practices what it preaches and, in seeking to advance economic mobility for all women, does not perpetuate privilege. The person to fill Bennett’s position as initially posted would have had to be in a position of just this, “privilege” being a word often used to criticize Sandberg (whose net worth is at least $400 million) and her advice for working women in her book.
Bennett’s initial announcement for a “volunteer” reflects larger issues surrounding unpaid internships. The Economic Policy Institute estimates companies save some $600 million a year thanks to unpaid internships. Former interns are fighting back: Care2 blogger Piper Hoffman has written about lawsuits they’ve filed seeking unpaid wages from the companies they worked for.
Piper has also asked asked if unpaid internships should be legal at all, a valid question at a time when too many companies are clearly exploiting the notion of internships. By doing so, they’re not only taking advantage of young people eager to advance their career prospects. They’ve also tainted the very notion of an “unpaid internship” and are doing an injustice to organizations and non-profits that, with barely enough funds to pay their own employees, could stand to benefit.
Ideally, internships are meant to provide young people with experience in areas they might seek careers in. College students may have to complete an internship as part of an academic program. If such internships are in the private sector, they must follow strict criteria following U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines which are “highly educational” and even “similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.”
“A volunteer to help me:” that’s what Bennett’s initially posted announcement was looking for under the euphemism of an “unpaid intern.” Of course everyone needs a little help to get ahead and get by. In keeping with LeanIn.org’s own beliefs, it should offer adequate compensation where it’s due. It is commendable that LeanIn.org has agreed to offer paid internships but regrettable that it did not offer such in the first place.
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