University of Wisconsin–Madison

Women’s History Month Blog Series #5 – Unpaid internships and the labor market: The impact of pay disparity on Women’s economic security

Guest Contribution from Dr. Anita Gopal

I recently spoke with a former student who completed her Master’s degree in Public Affairs. She brought up the topic of unpaid internships and its value in transitioning to the labor market. A year had passed since her graduation – and despite completing two prestigious internships – she still had not found a full-time position. Though she gained valuable experience and explained that these types of internships are important to taking the next step into a health policy career, it did not provide her with the means to support her family and pay bills during a pandemic in a city as expensive as Washington, DC. Instead, this responsibility fell to her spouse.

Internships are valuable for college students’ academic and career success as they are important opportunities for students to increase their employment prospects, particularly for those entering the workforce for the first time or for those returning to the workforce after having a family or changing careers.[1] They are also a mechanism by which an intern can enrich their education with experiential learning in a professional setting, build relationships with professionals, and network with experts in the field so that they can make a seamless transition to the labor market.[2] While internships are a key pathway to launching one’s career, there exist gender disparities in accessing paid internships.

According to a recent NACE (2020) study, “women account for 81 percent of unpaid internships and 68 percent of paid internships. These differences are statistically significant and are evidence of disproportionality.” This striking disparity could have an impact on income (in)equality throughout a woman’s career path. The internship experience is also gendered as many women are disproportionally overrepresented in unpaid internships, such as in the policy and government sector. In a research study on gender differences in paid and unpaid internships, it was reported that of the 2,410 seniors who participated in internships, only 35% of women were paid during their internship compared to 58% of men who received pay during their internship. Moreover, after factoring in background and major, the likelihood of women receiving pay for their internship was 34% lower than for men.

Unpaid internships hurt women’s careers because they could potentially position them to accept lower paid jobs and income disparity throughout their career trajectory. Women are already overrepresented in lower paying fields such as the social science, creative industries, and the arts sector. The lack of pay equity impacts women’s financial and economic well-being, such as their contribution to social security and retirement benefits. Women are also more likely to struggle paying tuition debt, bills, rent, and overall basic needs. From a societal perspective – according to Harvard University’s Professor Raj Chetty – pay disparities impact equality of opportunity and intergenerational mobility since parental income is correlated to the earning power of their children as they inherit their parental income status. Yet, going to college is supposed to level the playing field. If a woman comes from a low-income family, undertakes an unpaid internship, is faced with under earning in her job, grapples with a lack of equality of opportunity, this creates a roadblock to upward mobility that may bleed into the next generation.

When we look at current workforce data numbers, pay inequities continue. The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2020 that, “Women are paid 22.6% less than men with similar education and experience,” and are also paid 23% less than men after considering factors such as race, age, ethnicity, education, and age. The same report also states that “Compared with white men, black and Hispanic women are paid 33.7% and 33.0% less, respectively, after factoring age, education, and geographic division. For white women, the gap is 25.7%”. Additionally, since the pandemic began in March 2020, women have lost their jobs at a disproportionally higher rate than men. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported in 2020 that 11.5 million women lost their jobs between February to May 2020, compared with 9 million men. The disparity in pay equity between men and women concerning internships, their earning power in the workforce, combined with women’s job loss during the pandemic is very alarming.

So, why focus on salary discrepancies between male and female interns and how this impacts the economic well-being of females in the job market for Women’s History Month? Almost 60 years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, Esther Peterson, Katharine St. George, and Edith Green helped pave the way for President Kennedy’s signing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Despite this legislation, there continues to be disproportionality in how young professionals are being compensated for their labor as well as barriers to equal pay for women­­––much like the former public affairs student. For Women’s History Month, we can lift up and celebrate Esther Peterson for her work in the 1960s, and Shannon Williams for her work today. At the same time, we need to investigate organizational, institutional, and business policies and practices that allow there to be such large chasms in paid and unpaid labor environments. Within the higher education landscape, how can we champion for more organizations to offer more paid experiential learning opportunities? How can we work with young women to advocate for themselves and ask for equitable compensation? What are the mechanisms within our campuses and in society that can move the needle forward? As we think about the post pandemic world, the #MeToo movement, and the next generation of the workforce, it is time for both men and women to “break old circuits” and “render obsolete the former relationship and all its consequences” to make a change.


Dr. Anita Gopal is a higher education policy professional whose research focuses on student success and equity among underrepresented and international populations.



[1] Perlin, R. (2011). Intern nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. London: Verso Books; Moss-Pech, C. (2021). The career conveyor belt: How internships lead to unequal labor market outcomes among college graduates. Qualitative Sociology, 1-26.

[2] Allen, K., Quinn, A., Hollingworth, S. & Rose, A. (2013). Becoming employable students and “ideal” creative workers: Exclusion and inequality in higher education work placements. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(3), 431-452.

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