When feminist groups leave women interns behind

September 13, 2018

Hayley Farless, a reproductive justice advocate and writer currently based in Washington, D.C., puts forward a view on an ongoing hypocrisy for feminist nonprofits.

AS SEEN plastered on the website of pretty much every online store that sells “feminist merchandise,” outspoken feminist Flavia Dzodan once wrote an essay entitled “My Feminism Will be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit,” and as a feminist, I think about that philosophy a lot.

When I graduated from college last year, I quickly decided my feminist activism wasn’t just a hobby. For me, the fight for equality became a literal full-time job, although not at first. Before finally landing a job, I completed several internships, and — by Dzodan’s pretty spot-on standards — I saw quite a bit of bullshit in the feminist nonprofit sector.

Several prominent feminist organizations have recently found themselves in the news for union busting, but it isn’t the only ongoing hypocrisy and clear lack of intersectionality happening in this work.

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The glaring status quo that I found in way too many job postings and interviews is that many feminist nonprofits — the ones that are fighting for health care access, reproductive rights, women’s representation in politics and, yes, even equal pay — aren’t paying their interns enough to survive, and often, not at all. That’s a huge problem.

AS FUN as being a professional feminist might sound, the work is hard, and the feminist nonprofit sphere is tough to break into.

For young adults clawing their way into making a career out of feminist advocacy, an internship is often the only place to turn when trapped in the space between graduating college and being experienced enough for what generations before us called “entry-level positions” — lower-level jobs that now almost always require between two and five years of experience.

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The internship is no longer voluntary if you want to make advocating for gender equality your profession and gain enough experience to land something “entry level.”

This hiring trend might be relatively okay if the internship were simply a change in title from the so-called entry-level job. The responsibilities and workload are largely the same as a full-time staffer — you would expect the pay to be somewhat similar, even if internships don’t offer employment benefits like health insurance or retirement plans or protection from workplace sexual harassment.

The problem at the center of the transition toward internships for recent graduates is that almost none of these internships pay enough to support the basic needs of an individual, and many of them don’t pay at all.

While no exhaustive data currently exists, experts estimate that between 500,000 and 1 million internships go unpaid in the U.S. every year, and even more are paid meager wages or stipends.

These numbers are very likely to be even higher for the nonprofit sector, which is largely powered by free and low-cost labor. That fact, along with the Trump administration’s recent changes to make it even easier to deny adequate pay to interns, means that conditions are likely to worsen for interns, including those at feminist nonprofits.

Even worse, many of the feminist organizations who are hiring for these internship positions are not transparent about the lack of reasonable pay. The listings for their internships are often posted alongside staff positions with no mention of their being unpaid.

Some will be clearly labeled as a paid position, but candidates frequently won’t find out until mid-interview that it’s actually a stipend, which basically means that an intern can be paid far below minimum wage without any legal consequences for the employer.

I’ve personally applied and interviewed for “paid” full-time internships with progressive women’s rights organizations and then been offered less than $2 an hour as “pay.” I’ve also been told more than once — after spending my time tailoring my resume, writing and submitting a cover letter, and completing a half-hour interview — that a full-time internship was unpaid.

These advocacy organizations seem ashamed enough of this practice to hide it from applicants, but not ashamed enough to stop devaluing their labor.

CHOOSING NOT to pay interns a livable wage is, first and foremost, exploitation. Most interns today aren’t getting coffee or making copies. For most organizations, their interns are doing hands-on work in the office or out in the field, rather than receiving the education and training that internships are allegedly intended to provide.

Interns are frequently expected to show up to the job with their skills, rather than develop them there with the help of mentorship. They’re planning the fundraising events, they’re drafting the social media posts, they’re answering the office phones, they’re organizing the volunteers for big campaigns and so much more.

In short, interns are laboring within these organizations to further their missions — and stretch their budgets. Many of them are working 40 hours or more a week for these organizations — so why aren’t they paying them in exchange for their work?

These organizations’ reluctance to properly pay their interns has one of two — or potentially both — dangerous effects.

First, it perpetuates the cycle of mostly privileged women holding leadership positions in feminist organizations and other prominent civil society leadership roles. Poor women, which disproportionately includes women of color, queer women, trans women and other women who are marginalized because of their intersectional identities, often can’t afford to work for free or for low wages.

Without internship experience under their belts, these women — who are already less likely to be seen as qualified because of the myriad of intersectional discriminations they face — aren’t as competitive as others when they apply for full-time positions in women’s rights organizations. These women simply can’t get their foot in the door without the documented competency and accompanying references that come from internships.

Not to mention, studies have shown that those with paid internship experience are significantly more likely to get a job offer than those with internships that weren’t paid.

The lack of pay for internship labor presents major barriers for low-income women who hope to excel in the nonprofit sector and also excludes their critical voices from informing prominent feminist work. It further privileges those who are already privileged and continues to marginalize those who are already marginalized.

FURTHERMORE, THE failure by feminist organizations to pay interns what they earn is blatant divestment from women’s empowerment.

The unfortunate functioning of toxic masculinity and associated gender roles means that feminist progress remains largely an issue that is powered by women. While there are some men or folks of other genders who fill these professional roles, the vast majority of women’s organization interns are women.

Not to mention, women make up nearly 80 percent of people who accept unpaid internships. These young women, who are being paid very little or not paid at all, lose all financial empowerment when organizations fail to compensate them for what they’re worth.

Money may not buy happiness, but it does buy food, water, shelter, electricity, transportation to work, health insurance, textbooks, business casual clothing, internet access, birth control, health care co-pays and so forth. Being paid a livable wage keeps these women from entering or remaining in highly precarious financial situations.

For feminist advocacy organizations, choosing not to pay interns a livable wage is choosing to be an active participant in the financial oppression of the women who work for them. This practice perpetuates both pay and representative leadership disparities for women across the United States, and it belittles the contributions of interns who are often keeping these organizations afloat with their capacity-building labor.

On the surface, it may make sense. Budgets are tight for a lot of these organizations. They want to stretch their programming dollars as far as they can, and when the current employment market makes it possible to hire free, or nearly free, labor, it’s tempting to follow suit.

These organizations want to positively impact as many women as possible with their advocacy, but it’s sometimes easy to forget about the young women who buzz around the office nearly unseen, making that advocacy possible.

As progressives working towards intersectional women’s rights, we must resist the economic urge to exploit and further burden the women who are in some way less privileged than we are, and that includes the interns who sit at the desk in the corner.

If you’re an organization working towards gender equality across the globe or here at home, make sure you’re starting in your own office. Pay your interns — and everyone else who works for you — a livable wage.

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