On-Ramp Internships: Opportunity or Exploitation?

The Harvard Business Review blog, in a post by Carol Fishmen Cohen ('The 40-Year-Old Intern' Goes to Wall Street) proudly touts a new internship program for returning lawyers.

That is, mostly women who have taken time off to raise their families. We could all applaud attempts to make reentry into the workplace easier.

However, these experienced professionals, who are looking for mid-level positions, are sometimes paid less than recent law-school graduates. Even though this internship or fellowship is just for a year, it seems to me that the wages are exploitative. Do they think women's brains dry up while they are having children? This is as backwards at the notion in the 1800s that if women received a good education, it would cause their uterus to become dysfunctional.

These programs are terrific for companies. They get to test out the professional for extremely low wages. For the woman, though, her past experience is not worth as much as it should be. Yes, she has the chance to move up after the internship, but why does she have to move down first? Why should she have to step down a rung on the ladder when she already worked hard to get where she was before she took her leave? She might need a month of two to catch up on the latest technology and laws, but a full year or more seems excessive.

While $125,000, for example, would be a lot of money to many Americans, for an experienced lawyer and mother, these wages are pathetic. For women who still have school-aged children, the differential between costs of hiring someone to do all her maternal jobs and the salary from this internship may not be worth the effort.

In another blog post, this time on The New York Times' Motherlode column, KJ Dell'Antonia asks "In Hindsight, is Stay-at-Home Parenting Something You'd Recommend?"

Whether women regretted their decision to stay home or not, they all agreed that they would have liked the choice of flexibility in terms of work hours. As Dell'Antonia points out, not everyone has a choice to stay home, and those who do often feel forced to leave work because the hours are designed for families with one parent at home.

For the next generation of stay-at-home moms, many of whom are slowly moving up the career ladder while thinking about starting a family, this option may be uninviting. It screams that she will be penalized and given no credit for the work she has already done.

By paying these experienced mothers less than market value, we denigrate the importance of skills required of a mother. No mother can succeed at her maternal role without learning to work while completely exhausted, to multitask, to enlist the help of others, and to solve problems. Last I heard, these were skills valuable to any corporation.

Let's not allow law firms or corporations to create on- and off-ramps which deny the value of caretaking work under the guise of creating an opportunity. Instead of throwing out the mother with the bathwater, let's increase the number of these programs and add in dignified wages. There is a whole cohort of bright, well-educated, experienced women whose talents we need.