Covid-19 Is Threatening Gender Equality in the Internship Marketplace

Eleonora Voltolina

Eleonora Voltolina

Scritto il 21 Nov 2020 in International

covid gender gap internships labour market

Believe it or not, there's no gender gap in internship. Data show that there's equity in internship opportunities, both in terms of sheer numbers and considering the recruiting rate after an internship.

Unlike the regular “labour market”, the “internship market” is surprisingly girl- and women-friendly. For instance, in Italy the percentage distribution of male and female interns in the last few years has always been around fifty-fifty, or 49-51. The same goes for the chances of being hired. There's apparently no disadvantage in being female in the internship universe.

This should not be so surprising, though. Girls score better grades at school and at university, they graduate faster and with higher grades than boys. So they're valuable – also because they're not likely to have children. Not yet, at least.
Incidentally – the average age of first-time mothers in Italy is 32. That's the reason why if you're recruiting interns you're not going to have to worry about pregnancies. That's a huge factor when it comes to choosing a candidate for a position. So, we can safely consider that this factor is not so relevant when we speak about internship.

But – there's a couple of buts.

First of all, if it's true that internship is a strange oasis where girls and women find equal opportunities, it is also true that internships undeniably are the very bottom step of the labour market. Interns still can be unpaid – however in Italy we have the unpaid internship issue partially under control, as we've fought and obtained laws that prohibit them. At least when the internship takes place after school or graduation.  
Even if they're paid, they're usually underpaid. In Italy the “minimum wage” for interns is a regional issue, so it is set at a regional level – and it spans from 300 euro per month (in Sicily) to 800 euro per month (in Latium). Furthermore, internship gives no right to social insurance contribution, sick leave, or holiday pay. It is, as stated, the very bottom step. No wonder that at this step we can finally find equality.

There's no data, in addition, about who gets what in the internship market – namely if women and men achieve, at a general level, the same amount of opportunities of the same quality. Are low-quality internships – less paid, less training-focused, and leading to less socially valued jobs – equally distributed between male and female candidates? Or perhaps the best internships are more frequently caught by men, leaving the second best to women? Unfortunately, this second statement's way more likely. Also for the fact that a large share of the best internship opportunities is nowadays offered by tech companies, and these companies look for STEM competences, and women are still frightened by STEM studies. There's a huge field of opportunities girls and women can't even get close to, as they're not skilled enough. When they are skilled, there's the good old gender stereotype looming on them, thus preventing (some of) them to ask for what they want, preventing (some of the) employers recognizing their value and hire them.

Moreover, young women still report being asked extremely private questions during work interviews. Let's say that, if internship is that strange oasis I was talking about, every further step in the labor market is not. In ten and more years of activity, this webmagazine received a lot of stories about questions such as “who are you living with?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you plan to have kids?” posed during job interviews.
Yes, we could point out that there are laws against this kind of job interview question. We could emphasise that it is illegal to ask such questions. It is – but we all know that it comes down to “your word against mine”, and even if you're right, and even if you manage to prove that the recruiter asked you this and that – the fact is, you're the one who's not going to get the internship, or the job. So evidently, just out of the strange oasis, reality waits on girls and women.

Finally, the actual existence of this strange oasis of internship equality is threatened by Covid-19. The last data we collected show that the fifty-fifty dream is, if not over, heavily bruised. For instance, in the first quarter of 2020 – the last mostly Covid-free quarter – around 69.000 internships  were activated in Italy: 51% of these interns were women, 49% were men. But then Covid-19 came, and in the second quarter of 2020 in Italy the number of internships dropped to 27.000: and guess what – only 46% of them involved women, and 54% involved men.

Furthermore, let's take the Italian region of Campania
(although not the best case of equality in Italy in the first place): considering the 7.000 internships started between May and August 2020, after the first wave of the pandemic, 43% involved female interns and 57% male interns. Let's compare now this set of data with the same period of 2019: not only the number of internship was obviously higher, 10.000, last year – but also the percentage distribution of internship opportunities was three points higher for women and three points lower for men.

Maybe then I should adjust the first line of this article: there was no gender gap in internship.

So we're facing a new challenge, or threat: how can we protect the strange oasis, and keep the internship opportunities equal, when it's quite clear that a lot of people still think, in 2020, that work is more important to men than women? More precisely, that in case of job shortage, men should be hired first?

Now one could say: if they're not hired, women could build their jobs by themselves; become startuppers. Of course they could, but this doesn't happen so often. On the roughly 7.500 innovative startups registered in Italy at the end of 2017, for instance, just 15% were mainly led by women. A lot could be said about the reason: lack of self confidence, lack of support not only from banks but also from the first FFF circle, culture, and stereotypes again. I'm not going to dwell on it.

Personally, of course, I did it – I created my own webmagazine, my own company. But I learnt the hard way that it matters, yes, for I can tell my story and maybe some girl or woman could find it resonating. But one's personal experience – or model – will not solve the entire problem. So we've got to worry about what's going on in the labour market,at every level, even the very bottom level.

We must be ready to fight for what we've achieved in the last few decades. Now's the time for managers who care for gender equality to hire more women, to make sure girls and young women are given at least the same opportunities than before the pandemic, in terms of internships and jobs.
Or we're going to put all the weight of the Covid's consequences on the women's shoulder. Again. And that wouldn't be fair, or acceptable.

[This article was ispired by Voltolina's speech in the panel "Women who lead the change", in the framework of the Ashoka Changemaker Summit 2020]