Late last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation, LeanIn.org, got some negative media coverage. An editor from the organization posted a call on her Facebook page for unpaid interns.
The criticism was immediate and furious. How could a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and fighting the glass ceiling, engage in what many people say are exploitative personnel practices? How could an organization headed by one of the most famous woman executives in the country—a woman who is extraordinarily wealthy and wrote a bestseller on why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled—expect the most junior and vulnerable people on her team to work for free?
The response was swift as well. Here’s a shortened version of what LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote on Friday:
“Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality - and that includes fair pay - and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community."
From my perspective, the statement is too defensive, and it mostly doesn’t address the central issue.
It seems to be saying, “Hey, people are coming to us asking to volunteer. Why should we have turned them away?” It seems to be saying, “Even those who work for us for free still get value, so it’s kind of okay.”
Those things might be true, but they’re also, frankly, not productive. That’s especially so for an organization dedicated to principles that are fundamentally at odds with those practices.
From a communications perspective, the defensiveness left a lingering feeling that LeanIn.org still doesn’t quite get it, even through they’re changing their practices.
But the good news, and LeanIn’s real promise, is in Thomas’ last couple of sentences, indicating a change in policy that will require paid internships.
So having perhaps learned a lesson, an organization dedicated to empowering women can now start a much more widespread conversation about changing something that’s much more pervasive than it used to be: Unpaid internships, and paid internships with no benefits replacing what used to be entry-level jobs.