Unpaid Internships: Break the “Class-Ceiling”

Snapshot of Lauren Conrad on The Hills during her time at Teen Vogue. Credit: The CW

To be the PERFECT intern you just have to be flexible, energetic, creative and enthusiastic, and of course ALWAYS be willing to go the extra mile; and great at making tea, and maybe the odd chai latte, with skinny milk please? Which is all well and good, until you realise that you may have to do all this whilst living in a cardboard box.

But that’s okay because if you really want it, you’ll manage; “When there’s a will there’s a way,” says Lucinda Chambers, British Vogue’s Fashion Director (incidentally, Chambers once told The Telegraph that growing up she “never moved off page 58 of the A-Z between Brompton Oratory and Harrods”- we assume she occupied a house during this time, not a cardboard box).

Anyway, if you get to the office early enough you’ll be able to wash in the toilets AND get an extra half an hour of work in- how v flexible and energetic of you!

In a world of ever more competitive job markets, unpaid internships are an inevitable reality, but for many (namely those from low-income backgrounds or living outside of London) they represent a solid brick wall standing between them and the career they so desperately want. 

The issue of unpaid internships and the inequality they serve to strengthen is not new, for years interns have been sharing their experiences of exploitation, but, up until recently, their shouting has been into a black void of large corporations and complicated labour laws. However, last month, the topic was debated for the first time in parliament, with MPs pushing for regulations that would cap unpaid internships at a month. It’s a move forward, albeit a very small one, it’s passing, however, is not guaranteed, and the situation could be taken back to square one if it fails.  

Unpaid Internships are shitty, but a study by Madeline Schwartz has found that they are in fact the shittiest for women- that pesky patriarchy digging its heels in once again. Schwartz isn’t wrong in her findings, three-quarters of unpaid work is done by women, which Christian Fuchs reckons is because women are simply “more accepting of unpaid, unjust situations”.

So, the answer’s simple then, we must don our ’80s power style shoulder pads, stride into the CEO’s office, and demand we are paid otherwise we’ll… we’ll refuse to work (and end up unemployed and living at home again- so on second thoughts, we’ll be back with that chai latte in two ticks, yeah we can grab that dry cleaning en-route, in fact, we would LOVE to). It’s the modern day David and Goliath, but David is packing soggy egg sandwiches into Tupperware at 5 am and travelling to work 2 hours early to avoid peak rail ticket prices.

The presence of a “class-ceiling” when it comes to breaking into a certain industry was illustrated perfectly when a fortnight-long internship at Conde Nast’s Tatler was auctioned off at a Tory fundraising ball; the lucky (read RICH) winner eventually forked out £4k for the privilege. The highest bidder perhaps had images of dough-eyed Lauren Conrad steaming miraculously crease-free dresses at Teen Vogue before gallivanting off to New York, permanent job offer in hand, Brody Jenner’s hand in the other. Unfortunately, this reality is a little different, internships can drag on for months with little prospect of a pay-packet and Jenner is engaged (and not to Lauren either, cry).

Lauren Conrad during her internship days. Credit: Fashionista.com
So, for now at least, it looks like unpaid placements are here to stay, there are however some things you can do to fend off that cardboard box for a little while longer…

  1. For starters, be honest with you prospective employer, although it can often feel like all you want to do is nod your head to everything they say in a Churchill-esque manner (that dog in the back of people’s cars, not the prime minister), it’s much better to explain your financial situation from the offset. While they may not be able to offer any wage, they might be able to help out with expenses such as travel and food, or alternatively offer you a fortnight’s placement as opposed to a month- lessening your living costs.
  2. You can also approach your uni for help; many have bursary funds in place to help struggling students and usually a quick phone call is all it takes to see if you’re eligible.
  3. Finally, you can look for internships a little closer to home although Grantham Journal may not be what you envisaged, and certainly wasn’t where Lauren Conrad started out, many employers will value the experience in the same way they would a national corporation, and you may get more of a chance at real hands-on experience at a smaller firm.

Unpaid work is bleak but have faith that more and more employers are now feeling the pressure to increase opportunities and diversify. You may have to take a slightly different path to the one you first imagined but take comfort in the fact that when you do reach that glossy glass-walled office at the top, you’ll have to fetch your own bloody chai latte, and you’ll leave a tip too.


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