There are several good points in Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s analysis:
While many understand the intern to be well-off and female, the issue has traditionally been discussed in terms of class, not gender. But that’s begun to change since Schwartz’s essay. Schwartz draws a connection between unpaid office workers today and unpaid housework of mid-century married women—even when they worked outside the home, women were underpaid back then, too, and for a similar reason. They were “secondary breadwinners; they didn’t need full-time jobs,” she writes. “Any financial compensation—’pin money’—was incidental to their crucial place within the household.” And like yesterday’s housewives, according to Schwartz, today’s interns must demonstrate “flexibility, submission, gratitude.”
But even if the concern for rich women’s sense of self-worth or purpose inspires eye-rolls, is there anything progressive at all about the expansion of unpaid work? Unpaid internships may feel compulsory, and may be just that in some academic programs, but they are often unlikely to lead to paid work. The wealth and connections that are often helpful in snagging an unpaid internship may be more helpful than the internship itself in securing future success. Frequently, too, the justification for unpaid internships is that they can be educational. Yet the logistics of making sure one gets paid—doing things one would rather not do in order to have rent or at least coffee money, asking for a raise, following up with bosses when not paid—are much of what makes a first job educational.
The availability of free labor makes the same work cost less. Postings stating that interns are “needed” might indicate that their work is, well, needed. Despite what popular images might have us believe, the problem with unpaid internships isn’t that entitled young women are just hanging out in lieu of getting a job. It’s that a certain, mostly-female population is signing up for what seems like on-the-job training, with no job in sight.
And, of course, even if unpaid internships are predominantly taken by women from privileged backgrounds, they’re still a problem for everyone, because they close off opportunities for people who can’t afford to do uncompensated labor. As Paul says, this phenomenon is really something that calls for legal intervention.