Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Mia Gindis

The gender pay gap starts even before you get hired

Nathalie Ramirez Rojas spent the spring of her junior year at Baruch College splitting her time over two equally formidable tasks: acing her exams and scouring job boards for a paid internship in the social sciences.

“I actually saw an internship when I was applying that looked perfect but when I took a closer look I realized they wanted an unpaid intern for 40 hours a week,” said Ramirez Rojas, who’s focusing her career toward mental health and hopes to work as a therapist in the future. “I thought that was insane.”

Ramirez Rojas’s experience is not unique. Women are consistently overrepresented in unpaid internships, data show. A recent study of students attending four-year colleges and universities in 2022 found that two-thirds of the graduating male respondents received paid internships compared to less than half of women, despite women representing 70% of the 2,140 seniors surveyed. The research, conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, is in line with other findings from previous years, suggesting that undergraduate work experiences might set the stage for pay inequality between men and women all along the course of their careers.

“Your past salary can be used as a benchmark for your future salary,” said Mary Gatta, the director of research and public policy at NACE. “If you were paid inequitably in previous jobs, you are then carrying that inequity forward.”

Ramirez Rojas, for one, describes herself lucky to have landed her current unpaid role at the American Red Cross, where she serves as a point of contact for veterans and their families. The internship is part-time, for three to six hours a week, which gives her time to earn income by working as a Starbucks barista. Paid internships in her field, Ramirez Rojas said, are scarce and typically reserved for graduate students.

To be sure, plenty of men also sign up for unpaid gigs, whether for non-profits or money-making businesses. Though the practice has come under fire in recent years for penalizing low-income students, research shows that 43% of internships by for-profit companies remain unpaid.

Students are sold on the idea that working for free is an unofficial rite of passage to networking opportunities and, eventually, high-paying employment. Their belief is not unfounded: Nearly four in five employers rank internships as their top recruitment strategy, according to NACE, which found that over 60% of 2022 graduates surveyed had at least one internship throughout their college career, compared to about 50% in 2008 and 17% in 1992.

The problem with unpaid internships, though, is that they tend to lead to less secure job prospects than paid positions, both in terms of earning potential and career trajectory, data show. Paid interns were also more likely to receive a starting salary that was $20,000 higher than the median pay of those unpaid interns that were offered full-time roles. That helps explain why women tend to earn about $11,000 less than their male counterparts in their first year out of college.

This inequality begins years ahead of the so-called “motherhood penalty,” when woman’s pay tends to suffer a second blow from undertaking child-rearing responsibilities. Women are also 14% less likely to get promoted than men, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The wage gap at the internship level, the data suggest, tends to set a precedent for career-long discrimination that makes it harder for women to advance in male-dominated industries like finance or tech.Read More: Some Wall Street Interns Are Raking in $120 an Hour This Summer

Research indicates that pay discrepancies held up “whether you’re majoring in chemistry or English,” said Kelli Smith, assistant vice president for student success at Binghamton University, who co-authored one of the few existing studies on the influence of student backgrounds and academic majors on participation in paid internships.

The paper concluded that the majors with the lowest odds of receiving paid internships corresponded to fields like education, social services and health — all dominated by women. But pay inequality was even visible within the same field of study: Of the majors with the most paid internships — engineering, physical sciences, mathematics, computer science and business — only 73% of women earned pay for their internship, compared with 86% of men.

A study from 2018 asked current and former United Nations interns to reflect on their work experience. It found that unpaid internships pale in comparison to paid gigs in categories such as quality of supervision and support as well as meaningfulness of tasks performed.

While none of the paid interns remembered doing grunt work, such as fetching coffee or making copies, almost 5% of unpaid interns carried out such tasks at some point during their employment. Meanwhile, paid interns were guided by clear learning objectives in most cases, whereas only a quarter of unpaid interns remembered receiving such direction.

To tackle the unpaid gender gap and help women enter the labor market on an even footing, experts recommend instituting public policies like salary transparency laws. “That way we can help mitigate some of that inequity from the very start, from the time a person signs on,” Gatta said.

Companies, moreover, could consider conducting an equity audit of their hiring process, said Emily Dickens, chief of staff of the Society of Human Resource Management. Internship programs are a natural starting point for companies looking to diversify their workforce. An equity audit can reveal shortcomings in a company's recruitment strategy, including imbalances in pay rates, demographics and possibly even in the tasks and responsibilities assigned to interns. At the same time, implicit bias training can prevent recruiters from turning away nontraditional candidates or directing women toward certain fields.

Colleges and universities have a part to play as well by “debunking this narrative that it’s enough for students to work for academic credit,” said Binghamton University’s Smith. She encourages students to explore grant options offered by their school’s career center. The Fleishman Career Center at Binghamton University, for instance, distributed over $200,000 in funding last summer to 56 students to help offset the financial burden posed by an unpaid work experience.

For now, though, students are mostly fending for themselves. “I would like to see a change,” said Ramirez Rojas. She has faith that her next job will be a paid one. In the meantime, she plans to learn all she can from her current internship to make herself stand out in the hiring process.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.