Facebook's Sandberg stops leaning on unpaid interns

The social media exec's nonprofit, Lean In, will start paying them after getting caught in a controversy that highlights lots of issues.

By Aimee Picchi Aug 16, 2013 12:15PM

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, speaks during Reuters Global Technology Summit in San Francisco, June 19, 2013. (© Stephen Lam/Reuters)Tip No. 1 for would-be social movement founders: If you advise your acolytes to demand fair pay and treatment, you'd better be prepared to provide the same to your workers. 


Facebook (FB) chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg found herself in a mess this week over her nonprofit Lean In, which advertised for a nonpaying internship role at the organization. 


That stirred up charges of hypocrisy, given that Lean In strives to help women achieve leadership goals and gender equity. Getting paid a wage for work is presumably among Sandberg's tips for workers of both genders. 


After the outcry, Lean In president Rachel Thomas announced an about-face. Writing on Lean In's Facebook page Thursday night, Thomas said the nonprofit now plans to create a formal internship program that will pay its workers.


"We support equality -- and that includes fair pay -- and we'll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community," she wrote. 


The problems started when Lean In employee Jessica Bennett posted an ad asking for an intern who would work for free. The person also needed a few talents: "Must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through the end of year."


Among those requirements is a major, yet unwritten, stipulation: The intern must have the financial wherewithal to support unpaid work. 


And that's why Lean In's intern search may actually be most troubling. Unpaid internships are the norm at some of the biggest and most prestigious companies and nonprofits in the U.S., which means typically only students and recent grads from wealthy backgrounds are able to afford the jobs. 


In some cases, the practice of unpaid internships might be illegal, although ProPublica notes that it's legal for a nonprofit like Lean In to rely on unpaid work. 


But the practice also raises a host of ethical questions, including whether these roles exclude equally qualified yet poorer candidates who can't afford to work for free. Internships also raise gender issues because more than three-quarters of unpaid interns are women, according to a study.


"Men seem to prefer, seek and participate in paid internships with for-profit companies," the report from Intern Bridge found. 


Given that disparity, perhaps Lean In should make its next mission something close to home: championing pay for female interns. 


Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi. 

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1Comment
Aug 19, 2013 1:47PM
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Most mining companies in Nevada pay a  student studying mining engineering as a Summer intern at $27.00 per hour.   I think this is above minimum wage.
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