Two former UN interns discuss life, internships, and women in the UN
1 Mar 2021

Covid-19 calls for a paradigm shift to solve the problems of interns

In 2019, Diana Baron interned at the ILO for five months, during which she was privileged enough to receive a monthly stipend that supported her stay in Geneva. Long before COVID-19 turned everything upside down, she did her internship physically in Europe. Following the publication of the Fair Internship Initiative’s 2019-2020 UN Internships Report in December 2020, she sat down (via Skype) with one of her friends from her old ILO days and a fellow FII member, Jenny Ng, to talk about life, internships, and women in the UN.

It’s important to clarify that even before Coronavi­rus changed our lives, most UN internships were unpaid, and it wouldn’t surprise the reader to know that women interns made up at least 56% of all UN Secretariat interns from 2009-2015. This stands in sharp contrast to the UN’s declarations on paid labour and its commitment to fair remuneration. It is also surprising that despite this gender imbal­ance in favor of women when it comes to unpaid internships, the scale tips to the other side when discussing senior levels within international organizations.

When Jenny and Diana spoke in early January 2021, despite the long time that has passed since they both finished their internships, they dived into memory lane quite easily. Here are the main things they discussed during their call.

Diana: How would you summarize your internship experience? 

Jenny: Professionally, it was a very positive experience. I felt that my supervisors valued my opinions, I worked on key documents, and gained experience that I couldn’t have received in a different environment. But what shaped my internship most of all were the interpersonal relations. The Intern Board, the social activities, personal talks, the volunteer work. After spending all day in front of a computer it was nice to change the environment, go to talks in our organization, to trainings in other agencies. Basically, all the things that are the more informal parts of the internship, the things that cannot be transferred to a remote internship.

Diana: Were there any specific challenges due to you being a woman who is an intern? You know that I’m not afraid to express my opinion, and I always try to do it in a considerate way, but I can share that I sometimes felt male interns were threatened by this. In a way, I felt that the standard by which I was being evaluated was different than my male counterparts, and I was even told I’m too “charismatic”. Not sure what it means. 

Jenny: Yes, I definitely felt that. I was thinking all the time about how to be polite. Or “nice”. But then I was so surprised when I was told that I apologise too much. Many times by guys! Many interns are thankful for being in the UN and don’t want to “complain”, but you and I come from an activist background, and have a history of speaking up. I think that is how it’s supposed to be. You know when something is problematic in a workplace where a department can be made of 90% women and 10% men, and all the senior positions are being held by men.

Diana: And now when “remote” internships become more common, it could become even more difficult for women to speak up. 

Jenny: Definitely. If a guy is un-muting himself and starting to talk, my instinct is to immediately mute myself. At least face-to-face I can gesture that I was about to talk, but online, it’s much harder to express your opinions, especially in a group call.

Diana: I think we need to continue challenging these embedded misconceptions. Within ourselves and within others. And as we try to overcome our inner obstacles that prevent us from seizing opportunities, we need to also continue demanding the UN to become a fairer and more diverse environment, better-equipped to accommodate us. More promotions for female interns, more people from different socio-economic backgrounds, more interns from different regions, better protection to LGBTI interns. And the UN can start by paying all interns.

Jenny: That will definitely be a step in the right direction. Due to space constraints we’ll pause here, but the discussion should continue. It was just the tip of the iceberg, and we invite you all to dive into the conversation with the Fair Internship Initiative. 

Read the full 2019-2020 report here: 

Read the Fair Internship Initiative’s speech during the Women’s Strike last June 2020 here:  

* Diana Baron is a Member of the Fair Internship Initiative, Israeli labour lawyer and writer and former ILO intern.
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