According to a new survey by the Social Mobility Commission, most of the general public recognise that never-ending unpaid internships are, to be blunt, shitty. The survey follows an All Party Parliamentary Group report that concluded that interns should be paid after their first month of work across all sectors. Lord Holmes of Richmond will produce a Private Members' Bill this week to try and make this law.
Obviously, securing the rights of interns is paramount, not only to fairly remunerate an individual for their work (The Pool pays interns the London Living Wage) but, most importantly, to help oil the rusty wheels of social mobility. With a country where the capital city still holds the most desirable career opportunities, internships have become the preserve of the wealthy and the connected. Just last week, we saw how leading academic institutions were, in some cases, failing disadvantaged and BAME students. Government, society, education and workplaces need to work harder to dismantle the privilege pipeline that has been firmly in place for the last 30 years or so.
And I think a better deal for interns is in the not-too-distant future (despite knockbacks from the government last year), if only because interns now have the megaphone of social media to highlight those who are being exploitative, while companies behaving well are a brand exercise in itself. It’s fashionable. Plus, there’s a generation of tweens making money off their YouTube accounts – being unpaid will eventually become unthinkable.
But there’s a cultural attitude that needs to be wiped away with never-ending unpaid internships of 12- and 13-hour days, and it’s one that continues long after you’re put on payroll – the culture of “You’re lucky to be here”. It’s an interesting phrase, when you stop and think about it. Without getting existential, yes, if you are working in an internship you probably are lucky – you’re probably highly educated; you’ve probably found a way to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities on absolutely bugger all. You probably haven’t been discriminated against in some way. And in that regard, in the grand scheme of everything you are lucky.
Three months of unpaid work somehow becomes a debt of gratitude interns can never really fully repay
But you’re probably also determined, exceptionally hardworking, polite, keen, happy to do anything and everything. (I’ve been in the workplace long enough to know this is not all interns.) Good interns make the lives of every single person in the office easier by doing every single thing that no one else wants to do. They’ll go the extra mile, all with a dizzy giggle because they have finally made it into the building they’ve dreamt of being in since they were 16 (which is often precisely why the notion of “being lucky” is so easy to exploit). And they are not just an extra pair of hands – they are a younger, hungrier, often sharper filter on a world that other employees don’t see any more. They aren’t just there to make tea – they are to be listened to, integrated, trusted, supported and nurtured.
Yet, it seems for many managers, and indeed entire industries, the skill and hard work of an individual is always secondary to the honour of the internship itself, and three months of unpaid work somehow becomes a debt of gratitude interns can never really fully repay. And this continues higher up the ladder, when you remain underpaid, overworked, the recipient of snide comments. I’ll always think back to the moment I asked for a pay rise and was told to go and work in a bank. My boss was furious I’d looked my “luck” in the eyes and asked for more.
Recently, Andrew Hill wrote a blog in the FT about how the workforce is full of “insecure overachievers”. His blog makes no gender assumptions whatsoever, but I couldn’t help but think that was management speak for “women bosses”. Apparently, HR managers are seeking them out in law and business and the media because these talented people don’t believe they are good enough, so they just keep working and working and working. Now, I wouldn't accuse Hill of sexism, just perhaps myself, because “insecure overachiever” sounds like nearly all of the women in the workplace I’ve ever met.
And then you begin to join the dots. Now, we know there’s a mountain of reasons why women feel insecure in the workplace, from maternity discrimination to #metoo, but the message that your talent is actually luck is one that follows women from the internship to the C-suite. It is the first seeds of impostor syndrome – that your achievements and successes are the work of others. And that’s not to say we shouldn't recognise opportunity and be grateful, but women are always painting themselves out of a picture they should be centre-front in, and no wonder when we’re told, from the minute that we enter the rat race, we’re there because of a lottery win, not because we did anything we did to earn that position.
There’s no data to say unpaid interns become insecure overachievers, there’s just anecdote, but that’s enough for me. I’ve seen it – in fact, I might even be it. There are a million and one things to fix for women in the workplace, but we can start by eradicating this one: firstly, pay your interns and, secondly, stop telling young women they’re lucky. Trust, me they feel anything but.