Are Interns the New Housewives?


Are interns, temps, and freelancers the new housewives? Maybe — or, at least, maybe it’s helpful to think of them that way. Perhaps we should analyze the precarious nature of their careers — and the pressure on them to please their employers at any cost — through a feminist lens.

Madeleine Schwartz has a fantastic piece in the latest issue of Dissent on how interns — “compliant, silent and mostly female” — have become the “happy housewives of the working world.”

Why hadn’t I ever considered the gendered nature of interning (and temping, freelancing, etc.)? As Schwartz writes, “The intern’s obscurity and uncertainty characterize a labor force that has grown more contingent, relying on part-time, unstable, and insecure work. Interns will work for months without pay, benefits, or basic workplace protection.” The gender imbalance among interns is even worse than part-time employees; according to one study, more than three in four unpaid interns were women. Just as wages for homemakers have historically been thought of as a (rarely-received) “extra” for their inherent domesticity, internships are largely considered “creative opportunities” necessary for career survival. You’re lucky if you can get a prestigious unpaid internship; what intern has the luxury of considering worker’s rights?

This is the part of the article that resonated most:

A “flexible” corporation requires flexible workers, and as the labor market has shifted, so have the conditions placed on its participants. Flexibility doesn’t just manifest itself in global economic trends. It has now become a central part of the office worker’s performance.
Advice for interns usually stresses their need to be adaptable, as well as enthusiastic, submissive, and obedient. Common tips available on the Internet include that the intern “be a chameleon,” shifting his or her behavior to suit the current workplace. Another counsels constant apology: “I would suggest starting off [emails] with ‘Sorry to bother you’ the first few times.” Countless job descriptions repeat their demands: “flexible, energetic, creative, and enthusiastic”; “flexible, enthusiastic and highly motivated with a positive attitude”; “enthusiastic and flexible learners, capable of both taking direction and working independently.”
By requiring that workers at the beginning of their careers learn these behaviors, employers don’t just introduce newcomers to an office environment, they teach them how to be grateful for whatever work opportunities they may have, no matter how unfruitful. No task should be too unpleasant and no job too much of an imposition for someone just happy to have the chance to work. It’s not enough to recognize one’s gratefulness for actually having a job. The key is in showing it. “Thank you for this opportunity,” runs the mantra.
This places workers in a historically feminine position. The insecure and low-paid jobs traditionally associated with women have grown as the type of employment usually associated with men-regular, unionized and stable-has declined. The expanding women-dominated industries-in particular, retail, home health and personal care-are also industries marked by instability and few labor protections. For home health and personal care, where women make up 87.7 percent of the workers and which is expected to grow 50 percent from 2008 to 2018, the median pay is about $10 per hour.”

There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today without a myriad of internships under my belt. My first internship was at Lucky Magazine when I was 16 years old. Thanks to that summer I spent running errands and assisting on shoots, I got an editorial internship at Jane (the summer it folded!) through the Condé Nast internship program. That summer helped me land a Wired reporting fellowship after college. The first internship paid nothing, the second paid $100 a week, and the third paid $480 a week. Obviously, I had no benefits, and I rarely worked on projects that were of interest to me; when I did, I felt honored, as if I was being treated. I didn’t expect to be intellectually satisfied by my work. I was an intern! Stories about interns who sue their employers have always annoyed me, to be honest. What did they think they were getting themselves into?

I was exceptionally lucky, because my parents supported me throughout those internships (and the numerous others I had during college; I was an intern extraordinaire), which makes me less personally concerned with the financial repercussions of interning (which, it goes without saying, is a huge issue for many) and more concerned with how years of proclaiming how I would do anything my employers asked for little in return affected my work ethic. When I got my first real job as an editorial assistant at a newspaper, I never dreamed of asking for more money or time during work hours when I started writing articles. Instead, I stayed up all night working on stories and was thrilled to see them on the front page; why would I actually deserve to be paid for my time? I eventually left that job because it became clear to me that I would never be hired full-time as a staff writer; they were too used to me doing additional work for free. As one wise editor at another paper once told me, “at some point, you have to stop interning and assisting, and start actually doing.

I have my dream job now, and I know part of the reason why is because, thanks to years of internships, I am “flexible, adaptable, enthusiastic, submissive, and obedient.” But that also means I feel uncomfortable about asserting myself while on the job.

“The quality of work itself has also become more gendered,” Schwartz writes. ‘The behavioral characteristics demanded by an uncertain office are ones traditionally associated with women-flexibility, submission, gratitude….In an uncertain office environment, we’re all expected to be demure, enthusiastic, quick learners, and adaptable, the characteristics of a good secretary.” She suggests studying the The Wages for Housework movement as a model for a new way to talk about work. Since new analysis by the National Women’s Law Center found that, for the first time in six years, unemployment rate for women edges above men’s, this is definitely a good time to start doing just that.

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