This post has been updated to include a response from a spokeswoman for LeanIn.Org.
When Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg released her girl-power tome, Lean In, she faced a barrage of criticism. Some argued that her perspective about the challenges facing working mothers, was severely limited because of Sandberg’s position as a highly educated, very rich, white woman, who will never know what it’s like to face the choice between taking a day off to stay home with a sick child, or risk losing the minimum wage job you need to buy that sick child’s medicine. To her credit, Sandberg acknowledged that her advice would not necessarily help every woman struggling to find her way, but it might help some like her – educated, white-collar professionals – find theirs.
Her defenders argued that the dismissal of Sandberg as an out of touch elitist was not entirely fair, and certainly didn’t render her larger point moot. But if Sandberg and her posse of Lean In-ers were hoping to shake their image as yet another unofficial professional sorority for privileged women, her team is certainly doing her no favors this week. Recently someone working for LeanIn.Org, the non-profit established by Sandberg to build on the goals outlined in her book, announced on Facebook (where else?) that the group is seeking unpaid interns.
Now a nonprofit seeking unpaid interns is not especially surprising. A nonprofit founded by a multimillionaire who is seeking unpaid labor is. Particularly when said multimillionaire earned more than $90 million in a stock sale shortly before her organization began asking for unpaid help.
Wednesday night Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for LeanIn.Org provided the following statement to She The People: “LeanIn.Org, like many nonprofits, has enjoyed the participation of some part-time volunteers to help us advance our education and peer support programs.” She also directed our attention to a Facebook Status update in which Jessica Bennett, who shared the initial posting seeking an unpaid intern wrote: “Want to clarify previous Lean In post. This was MY post, on MY feed, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let’s all take a deep breath.” Saul confirmed, however, that Bennett is a LeanIn.Org staff member. Saul declined to comment on whether there are eventual plans to compensate anyone volunteering their services to aid the organization now or in the future or if there will ever be any paid internship opportunities with the group.
There are those who genuinely dislike the wealthy, or at the very least are suspicious of them. I am not one of them. But I do question someone who proclaims to want to see greater equality in the workplace, then promotes a practice that is inherently unequal. Unpaid internships reward those who can afford to work — often full-time, no less — for free. Who can afford to do that? Privileged people, that’s who. People like Ms. Sandberg, whose father was a doctor, and people like her children, whose parents are multimillionaires.
Over the last decade unpaid internships have become an American institution, seeping into virtually every profession, and increasingly pricing out poor and even middle class kids. The professions in which unpaid internships are most prevalent—media, fashion, the arts—are not surprisingly the least diverse.
Think I’m exaggerating about the fact that internships have increasingly become a luxury good of the privileged, right up there with a Birkin bag? Well, consider this: Fashion houses such as Valentino actually auction off unpaid internships at charity events for five figures. That’s right. Not only are kids not being paid to work, but their parents are paying for the privilege. That is, of course, if their families can afford to do so.
In recent years, more unpaid interns have begun to seek legal counsel. Earlier this year a judge ruled that two interns who worked on the Academy Award-winning film The Black Swan, deserved to be compensated for their work. Former unpaid interns for Conde Nast, the magazine empire, are following suit.
In 2010 the Department of Labor said it would begin cracking down on those attempting to use unpaid internships as a clever way of skirting minimum wage and other labor laws. While lawsuits may help, and federal oversight is important, they may not be the most effective ways of solving the internship crisis.
There will always be organizations, particularly nonprofits, that need help and can’t afford to compensate every single person. But most organizations have a supporter who can afford to compensate those who help in some way, whether it is a highly compensated executive allocating a few hundred dollars of his or her pay, or a wealthy board member earmarking a donation specifically for interns.
In my own experience, I had an internship in college that I could not have afforded to take had the staff not decided among themselves to set aside money for a stipend for me. Had they not done that, I could not have worked there — and I wonder how differently my career would have turned out.
Sheryl Sandberg certainly has the resources to change a young person’s life, the way those where I interned changed mine. If only she had the conscience and consciousness to do so. It seems she still doesn’t get that, for most Americans, “leaning in” is the least of our problems. Getting a foot in the door is.
Keli Goff is a Special Correspondent for The Root. Follow her on twitter @keligoff.