Unpaid internships are a gender issue!!

posted March 25th, 2013 by Janet Graham - 8 Comments

A young University of Ottawa law student approached me to discuss unpaid internships at a reception following an event where I had spoken about the “Lessons Learned By the Babes on Bay Street.” I do not like “unpaid internships” but had not given the subject a great deal of thought, other than to arrive at the intuitive conclusion that  unpaid internships represent a way for young people to be taken advantage of as they endeavour to enter the world of work, a world made more difficult in many cases by “grown ups” who had come before them.


In any case, this young woman, Claire Seaborn told me one of the reasons she had founded the “Canadian Intern Association” was because of the impact of unpaid interships on women. I asked Claire to write a guest post for my blog which she graciously agreed to do and very quickly sent me the following post (which has been modestly edited by me, so if you find fault, blame me!!).


Why unpaid internships are a gendered issue

By Claire Seaborn


As a female university student in my early 20s, I fall into the demographic most likely to have done an unpaid internship. In fact, I have done two unpaid internships. Many of my female friends and classmates have done at least one unpaid internship as well.


Dr Phil Gardner’s survey of over 25,000 American undergraduate students,  found that 77% of unpaid interns were women (click here for the full report). Unpaid internships in the United States are far more prevalent for certain academic majors, such as education, social sciences, health sciences, community, and arts and humanities, which have higher proportions of female students.


There is reason to believe the situation is similar in Canada. Although statistics on unpaid internships in Canada do not exist,  lawyer Andrew Langille estimates up to 300,000 unpaid internships exist in the private sector. In Canada, unpaid internships are most common in industries that have predominantly female workers, such as journalism, marketing, and the fine arts. Perhaps, employers are less likely to see women as valuable enough to be paid and women are less likely to ask for a paid position.


Recent articles in Dissent Magazine, Jezebel, and The Economic Policy Institute Blog are the beginning of a discussion about unpaid internships as a gendered issue. A provocative title – “Are interns the new housewives?” – caught my attention. In an article for The Atlantic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy wrote: “that subconscious belief – that young, middle-class-seeming women are somehow automatically taken care of financially – has persisted to this day, and I believe it’s this assumption that prevents even otherwise progressive sorts from taking action to prevent the rise of the unpaid internship.”


The impact of unpaid internships on women is just one reason why I founded the Canadian Intern Association. We advocate against the exploitation of unpaid interns and aim to improve the internship experience for both interns and employers. Unpaid internships are typically against the law in Ontario and their regulation varies from province to province. This spring I will finish my second year of law school at the University of Ottawa. I hope to use my knowledge and networks to fight against yet another barrier women face in the job market.


Thank you, Claire for this post and for taking a courageous stand on a troubling issue and doing something about it!! This is leadership by my definition!!


I would love to hear your thoughts about this issue and Claire’s post. Please share them in the Comments section below.

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8 Responses to “Unpaid internships are a gender issue!!”

Comment from Paul
Time March 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Aside from the gender issue, focusing solely on unpaid internships, what about the people who want to go into fields where practitioners do not have the funds to hire interns? Practical experience gained through an unpaid internship at the formative stage (e.g. law school) is invaluable as it puts those who have it ahead of those who don’t, thus making them more likely to secure paid positions later. Where would you, Claire, be without those internships? Do you have a job? If you do, you can’t honestly believe you would have been as competitive a candidate for that job if you hadn’t interned; securing the intership got you experience and showed your initiative.

Comment from Linda
Time March 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I agree with Paul and want to add two further comments. In the investment management business, interns and co-ops typically do not add material value and can be a drain on management time. Also, Claire’s article discounted the value of interning in terms of networking as well as giving the intern an opportunity to be “assessed’ by management in a targeted firm.

Comment from Tom
Time March 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Did Claire Seaborn get paid for this piece?

Comment from Kevin
Time March 25, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Paul, I think the point is that as long as a market for unpaid labour exists, employers will take advantage of it and some people will be able to afford to fill unpaid positions. A systemic change is required to limit the unfair distribution of paying jobs based on previous unpaid experiences which are typically an option only for those with financial support.

If you adhere to the argument that inequality will always exist and, at least at some level, should exist, then it makes little sense to continue to subsidize tertiary education. All subsidization achieves is to push the inequality further down the road inequality of job opportunities after students, particularly those with little familial wealth, have accumulated large amounts of debt. We should subsidize significantly less of tertiary education or make it far more difficult to get in. That way, there will be enough paying jobs to go around and people who may have gone to law school, for example, could get paying jobs earlier (after an undergraduate or college degree for example).

Comment from Claire Seaborn
Time March 25, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Thank you for your comments everyone.

The unpaid internships I did were both a very positive experience and I would like to see more internships that follow their lead. However, I would also like to draw attention to problematic internships and raise awareness on their illegality.

My first unpaid internship was for five months at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. This position was legal because it met the guidelines under the US Fair Labor Standards Act. If this internship took place in Ontario it would also be legal since, in my opinion, it met the guidelines under section 2 of the Employment Standards Act. It met the guidelines because it had a strong educational component that was for the benefit of the intern, the employer provided little benefit, and interns did not replace paid employees. We were allowed to work for pay after our regular intern hours doing coat check, running security, or working as servers for the Embassy. Some of the interns received academic credit for their work and others received funding from their Universities. My only suggestion would be to try to set up a grant program so interns from more modest economic means are given the equal opportunity to participate in this internship.

My second unpaid internship was for six weeks at the Ministry of the Environment Legal Services Branch in Toronto. This position was also legal because I received course credit towards my law degree, so it met the Employment Standards Act guidelines. It was very educational and I made strong contacts in the field. My suggestion here would be for universities and colleges in Canada not to require unpaid internships to complete a degree, and instead provide paid co-ops and always provide options for students to work for pay part-time during their studies.

These are not the problematic unpaid internships. Most unpaid internships do not meet the requirements in the Employment Standards Act. I have heard countless stories about unpaid interns working for months replacing paid staff, receiving little to no training that would benefit them in the future, and never being offered a job. Employers are taking advantage of high youth unemployment rates and using the word “intern” as a mask to provide no renumeration to its employees. Unpaid internships contribute to socioeconomic, gender, and intergenerational inequality.

Paul, yes I do have a job at a law firm in Toronto practicing litigation this summer and will be articling with them next year. However, many of my classmates have done several unpaid internships and that did not bring them any closer to employment. In fact, lawyers are now offering unpaid internships to law students who already have an undergraduate degree, work experience, and often a masters degree too. I have come across a study in the US that found that unpaid internships are actually less likely to result in employment as compared to paid internships.

Tom, haha, no I was not paid for this piece. I am simply volunteering my time, but that doesn’t make me an unpaid intern.

Comment from Ashley
Time April 26, 2013 at 10:42 am

The number of young and ambitious individuals undertaking countless “unpaid internships” is deplorable. Unfortunately, I see this as a global crisis and simply not a gender issue.

Unpaid internships are a disheartening reality for youth across the nation, namely fuelled by the arrogance and disconnect between youth and our “grown ups” in power. Our lovely grown ups have clearly set the framework for divide within employment settings. Hence, we are the “forgotten generation” that is left to: blindly network with people; cold call; get as many degrees as possible and, of course, plead for coffee chats to offer free labor. I speak from 2 years experience doing unpaid stints and have researched this issue extensively. This is the unfortunate reality for MBAs, JDs, PhDs and several other advanced degree holders.

Interestingly, the Government of Canada and our so-called “economists” hide the reality of our youth by hindering unemployment statistics — ignoring the millions of youth either unemployed or underemployed across our country. The underlying factors are never examined. For example, it is deeply troubling that I received the exact same response from all my 1L friends when I ask: what brought you to law school? Of course the response is: I couldn’t find work with my Masters, MBA or PhD. Thus, in order to avoid the unemployment gap they hide in school. This is simply not limited to JD students because I’ve heard the same story for MBAs and countless other multiple degree holders.

Simply put: society is ignoring the underlying factors of unemployment and young people just can’t break into a system that is developed to only hire from within. Similar to Clair, I am also a first year law student and my reason for attending law school is simple: I was not able to find a meaningful job with my previous 3 degrees. Unpaid internships and volunteering was the story of my life for 3 years and VOILA law school is here and now I am told that I need to pave this mentality forward even as a future lawyer. The solution for young people? Remain unemployed and cover up the realities by enrolling in graduate school, which will probably leave one in unnecessary debt and either unemployed or underemployed after graduation day.

Grown ups: stop being fake. Please start realizing that unemployment and a lack of diversity on Bay St is primarily due to a generation that has FAILED to lead by example we may then, perhaps, be slightly better positioned to address the issue.

Comment from Ashley
Time May 8, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Amazing post! Lawyers are definitely in the realm of super egos. People do not see value in the younger generation. Your post is very true and hopefully those that read it are able to actually make a difference.

Comment from Claire Seaborn
Time May 12, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Thank you for your comments Ashley! Email us at info@internassociation.ca if you want to get involved in the organization or write something for our website.

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