Skip to content

The Intern Ceiling

Fallback Image

“When negotiating,” Sheryl Sandberg writes of the male-female corporate income divide in her bestselling book Lean In, “Think personally, act communally.” Write that down, young lady. When navigating the land of the unpaid internship, however, women should remain obedient underlings. Why else would Jessica Bennett, editor at large of Sandberg’s Lean In foundation, post this listing on Tuesday, August 13?

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.

Such rich material – luckily, Baffler contributing editor Susan Faludi is already on the case, with a dazzling essay in our new issue. “Even when celebrating . . . examples of female leadership,” Faludi observes in “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” “Lean In’s spotlight rarely roves beyond the uppermost echelon.”

This internship posting is yet another example. Not to point out the obvious, but the kind of work experience and time commitment that the Lean In foundation is looking for—prior editorial, design, and social media skills, combined with the capacity “to commit to a regular schedule through [the] end of the year . . . start date ASAP”—is something that only the rich or the subsidized can provide for free.

Jessica Bennett, the responsible party behind the posting, forgot about community momentarily to instead reply to the inevitable backlash. Why would a billionaire self-help huckstress be all too happy to have women as undercompensated underlings (which is also, as former employee Kate Losse explained to Faludi, the corporate philosophy of Facebook)? “LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers,” Bennett wrote in another Facebook post. “Let’s all take a deep breath.”

But unpaid internships, like unpaid work of all kinds, are overwhelmingly a gendered issue. Women are 77 percent more likely to take on an unpaid internship, according to a 2010 study conducted by the research and consulting group Intern Bridge, which also found that women from lower-income families are more likely to take internships from nonprofits (the top provider of unpaid internships), while women from higher-income families are more likely to hold paid internships in for-profit industries. The Lean In foundation, a nonprofit, is leaning on and exploiting these potential interns, ignoring the fact that, historically, “women’s work” has rarely been paid. For the ambitious young woman who has diligently read her Sandberg, this listing reads as a slap in the face: community, it turns out, only matters when it’s making Sandberg money. But errand running is better than ironing, right?

While Lean In is hardly alone in its use of interns, it’s the discrepancy between what Sandberg preaches and what Lean In does that galls. Sandberg’s swooning fans may think she’s written another Feminine Mystique, but unlike Betty Friedan, she’s no labor activist, and only a skin-deep feminist after all, as Faludi shows. The twenty-first-century problem that has no name just might be the mysterious professional satisfaction we millennial women are supposed to derive, apparently, from our years of unpaid labor.

UPDATE: Apparently Lean In will now pay its interns. But LeanIn.Org president Rachel Thomas’s letter introduces a new question: are they a startup or a nonprofit?