At a recent board meeting, NOW board members and officers approved a budget that includes a paid internship program at NOW’s National Action Center. This was an exciting and important step towards economic justice and pay equality, but it didn’t come until we, as feminist activists and nonprofit workers, grappled with some hard truths about privilege and oppression.
Picture this: a room full of feminist activists working for a nonprofit in Washington, DC are sitting around a conference room table swapping stories. A feminist further along in her career laughs at the memory of having once worked unpaid for a number of months while her organization was in transition. She laughs and rolls her eyes at the absurdity of it all, “but I personally think it’s unfeminist to not pay your employees.”
Sitting at the same table, a group of interns make quick side glances at one another. One particularly bold intern snaps back, “your interns agree!” Almost immediately, half the room—the younger half—falls silent and shares a brief moment of discomfort. The interns, each working close to 30 hours a week for three months, are unpaid.
In feminist activism, we are deep in discussion around the intersection of social identities, power, and privilege. However, we are often far from constructively supporting intersection. To land most entry-level jobs in Washington, DC, you are expected to have previous internship experience—in 2017, a college degree is rarely enough. To land many internships, you are expected to be enrolled and active in a four-year accredited college or university. To be accepted into a four-year college or university (not to mention affording higher education), you are assumed to have achieved a certain level of academic success. And the pattern continues.
It is clear that these institutional barriers, financial obstacles in particular, put the most vulnerable communities—the communities we advocate with and for: women, persons of color, LGBTQIA+, immigrants, differently abled, and lower-income—at a disadvantage. In short, you need privilege to even be given the opportunity, to have access to internship opportunities at all.
NOW long ago dropped the education requirement for internship opportunities, and recently for full-time employment as well, but it took our organization a bit longer to confront the fact that, despite all good intentions—for all the work we put in to deconstruct systems of power and oppression—by limiting internship opportunities to only those who could afford to spend an unpaid semester in one of the most expensive cities in the Unites States, we were in many ways reproducing the very thing we were working against.
An informal survey among past interns, all unmarried without families, showed that nearly every intern required financial help from their parents or university. The help took many forms: program grants, additional financial aid, allowances for food and transportation, housing or rent, etc. Several interns took up part-time jobs babysitting, dog walking, or interning at a second organization—bringing their work week to well over 60 hours—in order to afford a semester in Washington, DC. One intern admitted to taking on significant credit card debt to make it work.
As the Internship Program Coordinator—the person who decides who interns at the NOW National Action Center in Washington, DC—I’d come dangerously close to failing to recognize my own power and privilege when hiring, and I often attributed this failure to status quo: at 57 percent of the internships offered being unpaid, non-profits are the top provider of unpaid internships. Close behind, 48 percent of government internships available are unpaid. Offices of Democratic representatives on Capitol Hill are especially guilty.
Unpaid internships hurt women the most: as many as 77 percent of unpaid internships nationwide are held by women, and fields dominated by women, like education, social sciences, health sciences, communications and media, and arts and humanities are the most likely to offer unpaid internships.
According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2014, hiring rates for students who completed an unpaid internship (37 percent) were nearly the same for those who had not completed any internship at all (35 percent), while students who had paid internship experience were more likely (63 percent) to secure employment post-graduation. Before they even hit the job market, unpaid interns in traditionally women-dominated fields are at a disadvantage.
The same study demonstrates disparities between young workers with paid and unpaid internship experience: students with previous unpaid internship experience tend to end up in lower-paying jobs than those with previous paid internship experience ($35,721 and $51,930 post-grad, respectively.) Fold in gender biases around education and occupational choice, as well gender biases around parenting and time away from work, and the outlook is grim. From unpaid internships to underpaid full-time employment, the gender pay gap has lifelong financial effects, contributing directly to women’s poverty and pushing women even closer to the margins.
At NOW, we advocate for economic justice, we recognize gender-race wage disparities, and we envision a worldwhere all women are socially, politically, and constitutionally equal to men. We also understand that limiting access to internship opportunities, and by extension, professional space in feminist activism, means essential voices are being left out of the conversation and out of the work. As feminist activists, it is not our job to be a voice for the voiceless. Rather, it is our duty to re-imagine the power structure: to listen, to create and give up space so that feminists can advocate for themselves.
It was an uncomfortable realization that, by relying on unpaid interns for so long, we were actively contributing to a society that further exploits and disenfranchises women and excludes important voices from the movement. I am absolutely thrilled with the progress NOW has made, honoring our mission, by implementing its first ever paid internship program this coming spring. It is now up to us to put pressure on our progressive allies and partners to make similar changes to their internship programs and reach our collective goal: to achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life.
Emily Imhoff is the Coordinator of the President’s Office and Internship Coordinator at the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Washington, DC.