United Nations’ Invisible Workforce
Unequal gender norms and sexism makes women and interns more vulnerable within our Organisation. According to the 2018 review of UN internship programmes, from 2009 to 2015 female interns made up 56% of all UN Secretariat interns, with male counterparts accounting for 29% (15% of responses not identifying their gender). A high number of interns […]
9 Apr 2020

Unequal gender norms and sexism makes women and interns more vulnerable within our Organisation.

According to the 2018 review of UN internship programmes, from 2009 to 2015 female interns made up 56% of all UN Secretariat interns, with male counterparts accounting for 29% (15% of responses not identifying their gender).

A high number of interns at the United Nations (UN) are not paid and do not receive written agreements in which their rights are clearly stated. A survey conducted by the Fair Internship Initiative (FII) in 2019 illustrates that an overwhelming majority of the UN interns came from high-income families in developed countries and more than 80% of unpaid interns do not receive any sort of grant. A surprising 37.1% of respondents stated that despite the internship agreement being written, it did not contain any indication on their rights and entitlements (including leave days, sick leave, social and health insurance, protection from harassment, access to justice, etc.). These conditions put interns in a vulnerable position in which access to justice in case of misconduct or harassment is often limited.

What is common among all interns is the financial burden caused by unpaid internships. Only 16.5 % of the surveyed unpaid interns would have been able to afford the internship without family’s economic support. 30.1 % have taken on a second job to finance their stay for internships.

Within the UN, internships are one of the least protected working positions and are largely occupied by women. This raises a concern about social norms regarding the generally higher willingness of (young) women to perform unpaid work, as young women are more likely to do so than young men. According to cultural anthropologist Linda Mülli who is researching early career workers in the UN, there is a readiness to ‘do what it takes’ to enter a high-profile career. The latter is still considered exceptional for women. This is a trend replicated amongst consultants, another form of temporary and potentially precarious work, with most UN consultants in Geneva also being women. In addition to this dynamic, Mülli found that women claim to receive mentoring from senior professionals less likely than men. Women also claim to be more reluctant when it comes to networking. Mülli observed that men, in addition to being less likely to accept unpaid positions, also have greater access to support from their superiors because “it seems that most ‘youngish’ men are welcoming career support from senior colleagues”. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to pursue their careers more independently, and to gain jobs without networking. Mülli explains that women tend to create a “counter-narrative,” imagining networking as a strategy of a person who is not delivering ‘a good job’.

Gender can also shape the internship experience with regards to parent-interns.Interns who are also parents (notably mothers) do not benefit from any financial or in-kind support (such as childcare facilities at their place of work). The lack of such measures, combined with the absence of a stipend, negatively impacts parent interns, who therefore are discouraged from applying and face additional burdens when accepting such positions.


As the nature of the labour market is rapidly changing, the legality, benefits and fairness of internships are frequently coming under scrutiny. In most jurisdictions, in fact, interns are not even entitled to minimal labour law protection, creating a situation of legal and personal uncertainty as internships may become a loophole for firms to employ unprotected and often unpaid workers. When internship agreements do not contain indications of rights and entitlements, interns are put in a precarious position. Such rights and entitlements include issues related to leave and sick days, amongst others, but it also encompasses a lack of information regarding protection from harassment and access to justice. By shirking clear definitions and expectations of an internship, there is a troubling risk for abuses. It follows that interns may easily suffer exploitation, abuse or harassment, as in most cases they are not legally protected as employees. The 2017 FII survey received a response from an intern which perfectly sums up the precarity that this creates: “A few staff members made advances of an unprofessional nature toward me (indecent proposals) and there was no mechanism for me to report them through. This caused me great distress, and to this day I am not sure how to address this without finding myself in a “my word against theirs” situation, in which I am guaranteed to not be taken seriously, as they outrank me in the organisation.” – UN intern for 6 months in 2017.

The temporary and insecure nature of internships can in some cases be the reason that interns are preyed upon by abusers in their organisation. An internal UN survey highlighted that it is often temporary and junior employees, terms which apply to interns, that are the recipients of such foul behaviour. Laura Turquet, coordinator of the UN Feminist Network, reacted to the survey in January 2019, saying: “Often younger staff, those on less secure contracts, and so on, are regarded as more vulnerable, less likely to report, and so unfortunately those people are more likely to be targeted.”

Sexual harassment from delegates and diplomats to the UN has also been reported by interns. Although often circulated by hearsay, without statistics to support the stories, such instances expose inappropriate ideas of workplace behaviour. As the perpetrators in these cases are not under the direct employ of the UN, and given the sometimes-fragile diplomatic nature of such appointments, what justice can an intern expect? And, does the absence of data represent an absence of such cases, or a more sinister reality that interns do not feel they can formally pursue such matters? 


Interns being non-staff personnel have limited access to the system of administration of justice. The General Assembly, in its resolution 63/253 of 24 December 2008, decided that “interns, type II gratis personnel and volunteers (other than United Nations Volunteers) shall have the possibility of requesting an appropriate management evaluation but shall not have access to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal or to the United Nations Appeals Tribunal”.

It is possible for interns to address disputes through direct negotiations with the UN and they may file complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse of authority against staff members. However, many interns, poorly networked and on-site for a limited time, are unaware of this option, and so for them, it may as well not exist. Moreover, if these processes for addressing disputes take longer than three months, it is highly likely that any reporting intern would be unable to pursue them to their end, as the process would probably outlast their internship period. 


Although all interns find themselves in a quite unprotected position, women and LGBTQ+ interns may face added layers of vulnerability due to enrooted and unequal gender norms and sexism.  For this reason: 

We urge the UN to raise awareness about mechanisms on prevention and eradication of (sexual) harassment, as well as on internal justice and mediation mechanisms, such as the Ombudsman & mediation services.

We urge the UN to develop gender policies specifically targeted to interns or at least to specifically address gender-related issues in their respective internship policies. We encourage the development and dissemination of online training tools on gender-related issues. 

We urge the UN to develop measures to support parent interns. We urge the UN to develop and raise awareness about breastfeeding rooms, notably among interns.

We welcome plans by agencies such as the World Health Organization to provide for health insurance for interns and urge other agencies and Secretariat entities to follow this example. We emphasise the need for insurance schemes to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health.

* The Fair Internship Initiative is a group of former and current UN interns advocating for quality and accessible internships in the UN system.
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