Opinion: Who gets to be part of development's exclusive club?

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The following story was shared anonymously by a mid-career woman. She recalls the difficulties she had breaking into the development field without having worked in a developing country context, although she herself is an immigrant from a Latin American country. This story is featured as part of the ongoing Women Working in Global Development campaign, through a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.

The story: What recruiters mean by ‘experience’

After graduating from college, I worked at an investment bank in an administrative role for three years and then enrolled in a renowned graduate school program to obtain a master’s degree in international relations. As part of that program, I was required to complete an internship — preferably abroad — given the focus of my program. I spent several months submitting over two dozen applications and recall growing discouraged after my classmates began to receive letters of invitation and I still had not. I could not figure out what I was doing differently. In my expressions of interest, I explained how my background as an immigrant from a Latin American country uniquely positioned me to work in the target communities in the local language. But that didn’t seem to have enough weight. In the few responses I received, I was told they were looking for candidates who had recently lived, studied, or worked in developing countries. I ultimately scored an internship domestically and while it was not what I had hoped for, I really valued the experience.

As graduation neared, I started looking for jobs at international development organizations. Flashbacks from my internship search crept up on me and I decided that in my expressions of interest, I would focus on my knowledge of the region, work experience, and education. I wanted to be seen as an equal and thought those qualifications would stand up strongly to other candidates. It took me a long time to finally land a job in the international development industry. I applied everywhere from big to small.

I finally got an interview at an international development company to support programming in the Latin America region and I was thrilled. This is exactly what I had hoped for. I speak Spanish, I speak French, and I knew the development world firsthand as someone who had lived in Latin America as a national and later as someone who had studied international development and gained experience through hands-on consulting projects in graduate school and as an intern at a multilateral development organization.

Following an assessment and Spanish and French interviews with a bilingual panel, I got a call back for the final interview. I was incredibly excited and hopeful.

I wasn’t selected, however, and I was told that it was because I lacked development experience and had not spent time in developing countries. I did not get the job because the other candidate had done an unpaid internship in Mexico for two months over the summer. In the eyes of the recruiter this person had the “in-country experience” they required.  

The news stung a bit, being Latina and a native Spanish speaker. Cross-cultural experience is my life.

Coincidentally, the successful candidate and I were part of the same circle of friends; I happened to know we had the same degree and that I spoke much better Spanish than he did. The in-country experience the recruiters were looking for was the only thing that separated us as candidates. If the recruiters had probed a bit more, they would have understood that I was qualified to work in the Latin American community even though I had not completed an internship abroad.

I didn’t like putting my nationality forward. I wanted to be seen as an equal with the rest of the candidates in terms of education and experience. It was only after the fact — when I was told I didn’t get the position because of the in-country experience — that I felt if I had said something perhaps it would have served as a proxy for “in-country experience” and changed the recruiters’ perceptions of my qualifications.

I eventually landed my first full-time job in international development soon thereafter, but it was as an administrative assistant, which meant I would have to work my way up to doing program work. I spent two years in that administrative role until I landed a program position — in retrospect it was a good experience, and that is why I stayed in it for so long. But I continue to wonder if organizations requiring or prioritizing candidates that have gained experience abroad, often through self-funded experience, are not missing out on candidates that are equally adept at cross-cultural communication either because they have worked with an international community here in the States or because they have acquired those skills through personal experience.

Quantum’s take: Preference for unpaid internships biases hiring in international development toward those who can pay

Access to unpaid internships is a highly sought-after qualification for entry-level international development professionals, and is one that is unfairly exclusive to candidates with fewer financial means. Ironically, in this woman’s case, it can mean excluding first- and second-generation diaspora who may offer valuable skill sets to development programming. The premium placed on field experience, combined with the competitive nature of hiring as well as institutional bias, favor candidates who can complete self-funded international work experience.

The impact of unpaid internships has been studied widely in the for-profit sector, but what does it mean in the social impact space? Let’s take a look at the who, how, and why of the situation.

Who can afford to intern abroad for free?

Over 1 million people in the United States volunteered internationally in 2008, an increase from 145,000 in 2004, according to the Department of Labor. A 2010 study revealed that over half of the study’s sample of volunteers had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 88 percent were white. Another study by McBride and Lough in 2010 titled “Access to International Volunteering” found that white people were more than twice as likely to volunteer abroad than black people. And 1 in 3 volunteers lived in a home with an income of over $100,000. A survey by Intern Bridge found that 3 out of 4 unpaid internships were held by women and the majors reporting the most unpaid internships, including education, social sciences, health sciences, communications, and arts and humanities, are fields dominated by women.

How does coming from a privileged background help one break into the international development industry?

Applicants’ who emerge debt-free from college or who are not hard pressed to earn money after graduation are often those that are able to afford to volunteer overseas, including with the Peace Corps or other internship program. For example, as of 2014, only 20 percent of Peace Corps’ 7,200 volunteers deployed abroad are minorities.

“During college, negative cash flow is resolved by family financial support or student loans. However, more often than not, for racial minorities and students from low-middle income families this is not a viable option,” reports a 2010 study by Intern Bridge titled “The Debate Over Unpaid Internships.”

Moreover, intern selection panels where they exist are often racially and ethnically imbalanced, as the aid sector in the U.S. is primarily staffed by white people — see Quantum Impact’s 2018 “Realizing Diversity, Accelerating Impact” study. Research tells us that unless specific structures are put in place to prevent this, people are more likely to exercise ‘like-me’ bias in selecting candidates who look like them.

Key industries are being shaped by privilege including media, politics, the arts, and international development. “No matter how prestigious an internship is, if it doesn't pay, many students can't take it because they can't afford to. Unfortunately, these are usually the very candidates who would benefit the most from networking because they don't already have a leg up,” writes Laura Franta-Abdall of Mic.

Then, there are the less obvious but important differentiators that come into play with early career recruitment for candidates from privileged backgrounds. For example, wealthier candidates’ families can afford to send them to expensive schools where they gain access to networks of well-connected professors, and once they graduate can also use wealth and influence to gain access to internship opportunities. Additionally, children who have grown up in privileged society are more likely to possess soft skills associated with successful professional behavior.

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, explains how not paying interns further contributes to inequality: “Unpaid internships create a pay-to-play system since only some people can afford to work for zero dollars for longer than a week or two. This ultimately exacerbates social inequality because key professions get filled up with people from privileged backgrounds; it not only affects who gets ahead and does well, it also plays a big role in terms of the voices we hear in the media, politics, arts, etc.”

Why do unpaid internships disadvantage the development careers of women and persons of color?

Free labor disadvantages women through its overrepresentation of women in non-paying positions. According to the Intern Bridge study, women in college in the U.S. are significantly more likely to be engaged in an unpaid internships — 77 percent — than men. This is an important equity issue. While men are more likely to seek out paying internships and establish their value, women are more likely to settle for unpaid ones. This creates a precedent early in a woman’s career and contributes to the long-term pay gap for women in our field and many others.

Whereas women earn less, when employers want candidates with unpaid internships, it can exclude racial minorities and low-income students entirely. Money Magazine estimates a 10-week summer internship costs approximately $6,200 including food, housing, transportation, relocation, and other expenses.

From an equity perspective, the long-term implications of accepting unpaid or low-paid work are even more disturbing for these groups. For example in the U.S., Latina women make only 55 percent of what white men were paid as opposed to 79 percent for the median woman.

One might reasonably conclude that the U.S. government would be an employer that would prioritize equitable internship opportunities. Unfortunately, that is not so. According to Intern Bridge, “An astounding 54 percent of internships in government are unpaid. We also know that only 5 percent of congressional staffers are Black.” By allowing unpaid internships, we are limiting the access of under-represented groups to reflect their interests in our governing institutions.

In his discussion of the unpaid internship controversy, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic says, “No one who believes in equal opportunity should support unpaid internships.”

The international development sector prides itself on advancing economic opportunities and empowering women. It is staffed by frontliners who are competent in languages, culture, and who understand the communities they work with. However, the whiteness of our workforce and the maleness of our leadership, shows that even “moral” industries have work to do.

The fix: What can managers and HR leaders do?

With an understanding that preference for unpaid internships is one of many unfair employment practices, managers and HR leaders can take intentional steps to make their teams more diverse.

First, opportunities for internships must be expanded so that they are universally accessible to all groups, and scholarships and stipends should be targeted in particular to minorities and low-income students.

For unbiased internship and entry-level recruitment, rubrics for selecting qualified candidates should be developed in advance and closely adhered to. Selection panels should be as racially and ethnically representative and gender balanced as possible, and members should receive education to mitigate common hiring biases. Hiring managers should reconsider whether in-country work experience can be proxied with other types of cultural acumen. They can take steps to recruit skilled members of the diaspora living in the U.S. who have a unique understanding of the region they immigrated from.

We all can do our part by better understanding key concepts of diversity and inclusion, and promoting equal access to career opportunities for under-represented groups in our field.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Sarah Grausz

    Sarah Grausz is an energy leadership coach, organization development specialist, and co-founder of the diversity, equity, and inclusion nonprofit Quantum Impact based in Oakland, California.
  • Yvonne Chen

    Yvonne Chen supports Quantum Impact's communications and fundraising activities, and is a contributing writer and editor. She has led business development activities across Asia and the U.S. and is based in San Francisco.