The Current

Unpaid internships hit female students harder because 'women's work' is devalued: expert

Students in Quebec are on strike this week over unpaid internships, which are allowed as an exception to labour laws in most Canadian provinces. We speak to an expert who says female students are hit especially hard, as unpaid internships are more common in female-dominated fields.

Fields such as nursing devalued as 'done out of love,' says Alexandre Frenette

Striking CEGEP and university students at a demonstration last November. Another week-long strike started Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

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As thousands of students strike over unpaid internships in Quebec, one expert argues that the issue disproportionately affects women.

"I've seen consistent trends of gender bias in terms of the intern economy," said Alexandre Frenette, an associate director at the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, Tenn. 

"Certain fields ... like architecture tend to pay their interns and they tend to be mostly men, versus other fields like arts education [that] tend to be mostly women, and those are unpaid internships," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Nearly 40,000 students and interns at universities and CEGEPs across Quebec have been on strike this week. They want the provincial government to put an end to unpaid internships, which are allowed under certain conditions, and guarantee full salaries and standardized working conditions for all student interns.

Internships can be mandatory course requirements that last months, and leave students juggling their placement, studies and second jobs to make ends meet.

Frenette said that even in intern positions, so-called "women's work" — such as nursing, social work or education — tends to be devalued as "something that is done out of caring, out of a labour of love."

The worker is seen as getting "various kinds of non-monetary benefits from this work, and that overall informs this very gendered system."

To discuss how students handle the demands of unpaid internships, Tremonti was joined by:

  • Laurie Bissonnette, who is studying social work at the University of Quebec at Montreal, who is on strike this week.
  • Alexandre Frenette, an associate director at the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, who is working on a book called The Intern Economy.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Produced by Ines Colabrese, Jennifer Yoon and Amanda Klang.


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