How Unpaid Internships Hurt Workplace Diversity

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of a paid internship: The college student’s declaration of independence from their parents’ bank account.

College students participate in internships to gain work experience that looks good on a resume which provides a distinct advantage when applying for jobs post-graduation. More than 83 percent of undergraduate students participate in an internship program while completing their bachelor’s degree. Of those, 47 percent were unpaid.

This puts students from minority groups at a disadvantage because, statistically, minorities fall into lower economic classes and cannot afford to work for free. Unpaid internships impede low-income students from internship opportunities, leading to low racial diversity in elite fields. Simply put, they hurt minority groups as well as entire American workforce.

African Americans and Hispanics have the highest poverty rates in the United States. Of minorities in college, 42 percent of African-American students must take out student loans compared to 28 percent of white students. Because these students are in financial debt, they are often economically excluded from unpaid opportunities.

Unpaid internships further skew a tilted playing field. It’s not fair, but then again, life isn’t fair. Yes, low income students cannot participate in some internships, but there are so many more they can apply for. In fact, students are not required to intern at all. But the reality is that internships are becoming increasingly necessary to gain an advantage in today’s difficult job market. If that’s not enough, the lack of diversity in workplaces that offer only unpaid internships don’t just harm the students, it harms workplaces as well.

Not even the federal government is handling this problem well. The District of Columbia is one of the best cities in the nation to find internships, but more than half are unpaid, particularly as the positions become more prestigious. The White House requires interns to work at least four and a half days a week without compensation. The Senate, the House of Representatives, and other agencies also do not pay their interns. As organizations that were created to serve the public good, it is troubling that the majority of voices represented in these operations come from those of privilege. This greatly diminishes the diversity of perspectives that an organization should have to best serve a diverse public.

Check out Republican Speaker of The House, Paul Ryan’s Instagram picture with the Republican party’s congressional interns. The crowd is almost entirely composed of white students.

Internships are a key factor in helping students get ahead in their careers, even if they are unpaid. But no matter how well-meaning or beneficial they are, they still work to perpetuate social inequalities by making some of the most prestigious and influential positions accessible only to those from privileged backgrounds. “TALENT is equally distributed,” wrote Darren Walker in a New York Times piece, “but opportunity is not.” When we limit the prospects for talented individuals to contribute positively to any workspace, everyone is at a disadvantage.

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