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Why are internships overwhelmingly taken by women?
It's unpaid internships in particular, 77 percent according to one recent study, that skew heavily towards women. This is a huge and troubling question, which I was only able to scratch the surface of in Intern Nation. The simplest explanation is that women are more heavily represented in the white-collar world generally, and particularly in the fields where unpaid internships flourish. There's a correlation to subjects studied in school, with humanities and social sciences majors, more of whom are women, much less likely to be paid, even by the same intern employer. A more insidious reason might be the creepy gender dynamic that's all too often present in internship situations, with women less likely to demand pay for their efforts or quickly leave exploitative situations.
What has been the strangest example of an internship you've come across in your research?
I've been impressed and astounded to find interns working in the Vatican, in the Army, at Los Alamos and in all sorts of other crazy places. I think it's pretty wild to see Pizza Hut hiring an intern specifically to manage their Twitter feed. Likewise, guys in home offices who bring on interns ostensibly to help them develop a business, but really just to help them promote themselves and run all sorts of random errands, since the business is really non-existent. I talked to someone who interned for a Chinese businessman where all she did was do Google searches for him.
What was your worst internship experience? Did any of the internships you've done provide you with lasting skills/advantages?
I only did one (unpaid) internship, over four months long and pretty routine, not too exciting and not really getting any training. I learned about the organization's work and had something to put on my CV afterwards, but I can't say it led anywhere or left me with lasting skills. It did, however, spark the idea behind this book.
Outside of the question of remuneration, do you think the essential value of an internship—as on-the-job apprenticeship—has lost much of its original value?
I think the basic concept still has a lot of merits, but it's going to take a lot of work to restore the good name of internships. Apprenticeships, usually in the blue-collar trades, tend to do a much better job on so many levels: they're well paid, there are benefits and workplace protections, and the training is structured and intensive. Of course, there are still plenty of great internships out there, and it can be risky not to do one if you want to enter a particular profession, but the reality currently falls far short of the ideal.
Moving closer to home, what do you suggest for a small business (like The L Magazine) that relies heavily on intern support?
If you actually rely on interns, you should be paying them. Is minimum wage really too much to ask for real work? If the work of interns isn't leading to real results, the business should ask why it's bringing on interns at all. Is it an act of charity? In that case, run a training or even a shadowing program, selflessly imparting all that you know to the next generation. Also, it can be better for everyone in the long run to have fewer, more committed, paid interns rather than a slew of unpaid interns constantly cycling through.