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Friday, August 16, 2013

LeanIn.org Offers Paid Internship After Uproar Over Volunteer Position

LeanIn.org â€" the organization started by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, to promote women’s career empowerment â€" is paying a heavy price for an unpaid internship.

The nonprofit group took a public relations shellacking this week over a posting by its editor, Jessica Bennett, seeking a “Lean In editorial intern,” who would work part time, for no pay. “Must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus!” she wrote Tuesday on her Facebook page.

Work for free for a group that urges women to speak up and be paid what they are worth? The irony â€" some would say audacity â€" of the request immediately set off an online uproar. It didn’t help that Ms. Sandberg, whose net worth exceeds $1 billion, just sold $91 million of Facebook stock, apparently giving her plenty of cash to finance dozens of internships if she chose.

“Surely Lean In can LEAN BACK and offer an hourly wage. These kind of opportunities leaves out women who want to make a contribution, but can’t afford the opportunity cost of taking an unpaid role,” wrote one commenter, Jennifer Audrey Kauffman, in a sentiment echoed by others.

The tech gossip blog Valleywag picked up on the controversy, which quickly went viral.

Ms. Bennett, who has occasionally freelanced for The New York Times, quickly backtracked, posting a follow-up item saying, “This was MY post, on MY feed, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let’s all take a deep breath.”

But that explanation, which contradicted her previous post, did little to settle things down. Indeed, the whole episode revved up a long-running debate over the fairness and legality of unpaid internships. In several prominent cases, interns have sued their employers, arguing that they were really performing traditional work functions and should be paid accordingly.

By Thursday, LeanIn.org’s president, Rachel Thomas, weighed in, offering half-apology and half-explanation:

We recognize there is an ongoing public debate on the appropriate use of unpaid interns. So we want to share the facts with you and our community.

Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. They worked flexibly when they could, and often remotely.

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. The posting that prompted this discussion was for a position that doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org’s definition of a “volunteer.”

As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid.

We support equality â€" and that includes fair pay â€" and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.

Ms. Bennett did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment on the matter.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Sandberg referred calls to LeanIn.org.

Andrea Saul, a LeanIn.org spokeswoman, said, “We’re a new entity. We’re not going to do everything perfectly.”

Ms. Saul declined to disclose the group’s budget, but she said that it currently had a paid staff of six people. The organization is financed by donations from Ms. Sandberg as well as the profits from her best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

No word yet on how much the new internship will pay, but odds are that it will be less than the $6,000 or so a month that engineering interns at Facebook generally make.