Women's Work and the Race to the Bottom

08/30/2013 03:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2013

Interns are finally getting their 15 minutes of fame. Hannah's spectacular firing on Girls and Owen Wilson's recent movie are symptoms of a new labor movement entering the spotlight -- but what does it mean, and how can we use this newfound attention? For starters, we can realize how these two deceptively similar sets of circumstances point towards a work force that is increasingly hostile towards women and traditionally feminine professions. For a variety of reasons, Nick Campbell had the expectation of a paid internship at Google and possibly a full-time job afterwards, but it was ludicrous for Hannah Horvath to demand the same assurances.

I currently intern for HuffPost Labs, an embedded tech startup owned by The Huffington Post. The perks of this job make the inequalities of some of my past internships more glaring -- this is the first time I've been on a team that's growing instead of shrinking. The assumption that the company will pay its interns isn't lost on me, nor is the fact that I'm the only person fulfilling a non-technical role on the team. Having worked mostly publishing and magazine internships before this, I was especially interested in the Tech and Media panel that my supervisor, Brandon Diamond, participated in last week.

When asked what journalists could do to save their careers (because content creation isn't enough anymore), the panel was in agreement: learn to code. Dani Frankhauser of Mashable confirmed this sentiment with her observation, "the makeup of the newsroom is changing. Product teams need to grow more than editorial teams." Writing in plain English and writing in Scala are both creative skills, but it seems that you can only a make a secure career out of one of these.

That would be fine, if these skills were equally prevalent across genders. But the gender disparity in lucrative STEM jobs (which is another issue deserving of its own article) means that women remain financially unstable for much too long. In some cases this has created a literal race to the bottom, culminating in the abomination known as the unpaid internship.

It's time to wake up and smell the coffee your intern fetched for you -- internships have transformed a class problem into a gender problem. Internships, which were originally created to jumpstart vocational training, have become mandatory for entering many white-collar professions. This system inherently favors the well-connected, but internships in their new form -- unpaid and illegal -- are almost exclusively the hallmark of young women, because they're mostly found in female-heavy industries such as the arts, publishing, and the non-profit sector. STEM internships are largely still paid.

The work done by female liberal arts majors, it seems, must be valueless -- indeed, women are encouraged to think of their internships as purely educational networking opportunities. Furthermore, in many cases students must actually pay universities for the privilege of holding unpaid internships. This practice, in which companies avoid paying interns by requiring that they be "compensated" with college credit, is not a legal alternative to offering wages. In an environment where their work is worse than worthless, how are women supposed to reclaim their agency? Even the Lean In Foundation, an organization purportedly meant to empower women in the workplace, would prefer that its young female interns call themselves "volunteers." This is just one way that society tricks women into feeling undeserving of fair compensation for their time and labor.

Even after the female liberal arts major does her due diligence and finishes college with internships under her belt, she is qualified to enter industries that pay employees... virtually nothing. The job seeking website advises generalist B.A. holders to become administrative support professionals, executive secretaries, or construction workers to maximize their earning potential. This certainly isn't helping to close the gap between men and women's salaries, and in a world where success is usually defined by your income, it robs women of their power.

So what can we do to remedy this situation? The roadmap is clear, but it's a long one. For starters, women need to demand the same compensation as men for doing the same jobs. Once this is done, we can start asking ourselves why the type of work that women seem to prefer doing is worth so much less to society. And if we conclude that STEM careers are truly more valuable than jobs in other professions, we need to figure out a way to encourage women to enter these industries. Only then will the unpaid internship disappear, and women will finally become first-class citizens instead of "volunteering" and "networking" their way into poverty.