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Do Unpaid Internships Set Up Women for a Pay Gap?

A recent article published by Bloomberg posits that the gender pay gap starts with unpaid internships. It cites data showing women consistently take unpaid internships at a higher rate than men. Internships are vital to gaining experience and developing connections for future employment. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports about four out of five employers rank internships as a top recruitment strategy. The number of students taking internships has risen dramatically over the last few decades. Approximately 43% of internships at companies are unpaid.

A survey from the NACE found two-thirds of graduating male respondents in 2022 had paid internships compared to less than half of the women. According to Bloomberg, many paid interns end up with higher starting salaries, as much as $20,000 more, compared to unpaid interns offered full-time jobs when their internships end. Employers often use past salary as a starting point for wage negotiations, and women with unpaid internships already start their careers behind. This information helps explain why women often earn less than men in their first jobs out of college. The disparity grows as women face the "motherhood penalty" from their childcare responsibilities later in their careers.

Notably, the gender pay disparity occurs irrespective of degree type. While female-dominated degrees in education, social services, and health offer the least number of paid internships, even in science and engineering fields, “73% of women earned pay for their internships, compared with 86% of men," in reporting by Bloomberg. Moreover, paid internships reportedly offer better experience and supervisor engagement.