The Problem With The Lean In-tern

I am a college student in a field that traditionally offers unpaid internships. If you were to ask me two years ago to work for a big-name publication with no pay, I would have jumped at the chance.

But this year, while browsing internship listings for this summer, I had no interest in unpaid positions. I considered them a last resort, only applying to a few in case I had no other choice.  But really, no internship was more appealing than an unpaid one. I considered traveling, waiting tables and a couple other alternatives I thought would be more rewarding than working for someone for free.

Judging from the backlash on this Facebook post asking for a part-time unpaid editorial intern, it seems I’m not the only one with dwindling tolerance for unpaid internships.


The job requisition came from New York editor at Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation, which promotes powerful women in the workplace. As Slate notes, it is hypocritical for a foundation that promotes workplace equality and support to hire interns without paying them. And Sheryl Sandberg isn’t exactly strapped for cash (her net worth is estimated around $500 million).

Bennett tried to repair the damage the following day, with a post clarifying that it wasn’t an unpaid intern she was looking for, but a “volunteer.”

“LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let’s all take a deep breath,” she wrote.

But I don’t buy it. Bennett first listed the position as an “editorial intern,” which typically attracts more ambitious applicants than “volunteer.” And while volunteers are dedicated and skilled, Bennett’s post listed job qualifications that applicants would have to satisfy.

The title “Intern” (or “Lean In-tern”) promises a more hands-on experience, guidance and qualifications to add to your résumé. And while unpaid internships have been widely accepted in the past, there are a couple of trends that are leading to harsher criticism.

Aside from the legal implications of free labor, the increasing demand for higher education means that more students are competing for whatever internship they can find. While companies benefit from a wide pool of qualified applicants, unpaid interns are taking the place of entry-level jobs. Working for free will take an even bigger toll on students who will need Stafford loans, whose interest rates will double to 6.8 percent.

People are also pushing for sustainable living wages, and not just in internships but also in generally lower-paying positions at places like McDonald’s and Walmart. Students who travel to expensive cities such as San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., are basically paying thousands of dollars for the opportunity to simply be an intern.

In Bennett’s defense, a part-time unpaid internship is a lot more flexible than a full-time position. I know some students who have worked an unrelated part-time job to support an unpaid position in their field. I’ve also taken a part-time, unpaid internship during the school year, because I had the extra time and was living an hour away from Chicago.

There will also surely be people interested in Bennett’s editorial position, even if it is unpaid. They may consider the rewards greater than the costs to be a part of the Lean In Foundation’s work. Some of my friends and classmates justify taking one unpaid internship because they think it’s a necessary step to a better option the next year. It’s a trade-off, a sacrifice in hopes that it will pay off in future hires.

And in some cases, the name means more than the pay. As a student at one of the top journalism schools in the country, I know the value that some people place on working at prestigious organizations and stacking a résumé. There comes a time in the spring when everyone you run into asks, “Where are you working this summer?” Sometimes it’s a lot easier to say an unpaid internship than nothing at all.

But unpaid internships undermine the work of qualified and motivated interns. Even if they are the least experienced workers at the company, they were chosen from an increasingly competitive pool and are aiding the company (unless you hired one of these interns.) If a company doesn’t think an intern’s work is worth paying for, then don’t hire them.

Positions like this won’t be widely sustainable for long, especially as more interns are filing lawsuits against media companies for fair compensation — and winning. In Lean In’s case, the media outburst prompted a public statement that they will pay interns. In an effort to back-pedal, the president of, Rachel Thomas, posted on the organization’s Facebook page, denying the existence of any internship program. She said while the organization has attracted many volunteers, any interns they take going forward will be paid.

There are a couple of organizations that still avoid paying interns by requiring students to receive class credit. But this is a cop-out, because class credit is effectively useless when it comes to getting a diploma. Others don’t call it an unpaid internship, because they offer a “stipend,” usually enough to cover cost of travel.

While this limits applicants to those who can afford to take these positions, some people make it work. I have close friends that took on unpaid internships this summer and are doing great work. I have another friend who isn’t getting paid this summer, so she is considering taking a year off college to work and earn more money.

I’m lucky to be working a paid internship this summer that I love; I didn’t believe I was going to find something like this. But it seems that, increasingly, employers and pundits — and even interns — are recognizing that unpaid internships just aren’t sustainable. May this post serve as more coal for the fire.