Paying for equal opportunity

I came across this open letter to the CEO of Yelp from an employee, asking for better wages – and the response: immediately firing her. It reminded me of a post that’s been lingering in my drafts folder for a while about investments in academia. Obviously Yelp has very little resemblance with academia, but in both worlds, believe it or not – money talks! It especially says a lot about how institutions value their more junior/more lowly ranked employees.

More specifically, one of the things that’s been bugging me for a while is the dichotomy between what academic institutions say (nominally supporting diversity and equal opportunity) and what they do. Because, more often than not, it’s just lip service, and they don’t really give a dime. Literally. Obviously, there are also a lot of mindset problems between the here and now and generating true equal opportunity workplaces (think no further than the recent sexual harassment cases in science or or the complex issues LGBT academics face), but sometimes, sometimes a little financial investment could be enough and go a looong way.

Two issues that seem particularly unfair – and easy to fix – are the absence of affordable daycare for young professionals and that most internships in academia are unpaid*.

For the first one, there is simply no excuse. If you want to ensure that women stay in academia even after they have kids you need to make sure that a) either they earn enough to pay the market rate for decent childcare and b) the waitlists are not years and years and years**. The first point I think is predominantly a problem in countries like the UK or the US, where decent childcare can cost more than what a young academic would make.

The importance of Childcare: Dad's way to keeo 'em busy... (Photo by teachezofpeachez)

The importance of Childcare: Dad’s way to keeo ’em busy… (Photo by teachezofpeachez)

But even when they can afford childcare, waitlists can be multiple years (I mean, seriously, WTF? You need to sign up your baby before you even conceived?). Universities, research institutes: stop saying you support women in science – help young parents get kindergarten placements! Whether that’s through subsidies for daycare costs or having your own affordable on-site daycare – it really doesn’t matter, as long as it works. And maybe the best solution is different, depending on where you are: so how about you ask young parents on campus what problems they are facing and if they have any ideas for solving them?

The second one, unpaid internships, is maybe more debatable. But I believe that by not paying summer interns we are maintaining a system of rich supremacy in academia.***

Unpaid internships... Not cool.

Unpaid internships… Not cool.

Think about it: your lab experience during your high-school or university years matters. It gives hands-on training and the right line in a CV can be the key for university or grad school positions. When I was a university student in Hungary, I did a 3-month summer internship in Birmingham. I was paid: not a lot, but it was enough to pay housing and food and do short weekend trips (using 1£ megabus fares and sleeping on couches and floorspace from fellow interns, so don’t imagine anything fancy).  At the time, I took this salary for granted, but in retrospect I know it was a luxury (for example, fellow interns in London were getting barely enough to pay for student housing). I come from a moderately well-off family in Hungary, and yet, because salaries and living costs were so different between Hungary and the UK (I spent less in a month in Hungary than my accommodation cost in the UK) the money was a dealbreaker for me, and I am eternally grateful for my supervisors’ support. Now imagine kids that come from much less privileged families and you tell them: “well, you could go work at CVS where they’ll pay you – or you could do a free internship in a lab, which may or may not pay off long-term.” Which one would you chose? And then, not to forget, underrepresented minorities often come from less affluent backgrounds, so yes, that’s kind of a double-whammy. Obviously, there are plenty of pitfalls associated paying interns and summer students in research labs and I have probably heard most of them (“it’s a training position – we’re teaching them”, “we’re already on a shoestring budget”, “not everyone needs the money – how will we select the ones who do?”), but where there is a will there is a way.

Coming from a country where money is more tight than in most of the countries where I’ve worked, I appreciate the importance of $$$, especially early on in your career. It can absolutely channel your choices and opportunities. And if academia is serious about equal opportunities – they better start paying for it.


*Note: “most”, not *all* internships are unpaid in science. There are programs that do pay their interns (often to enhance diversity). If you’re interested, here are some resources for paid internships:

And there are some high-profile associations that pay their interns (way to go AAAS and Wellcome Trust!):

**Ok, I know it’s not just childcare. There are other things, too, and if you want to read up on some stats and suggestions, I can recommend this post about “Should academic departments be child friendly?“. But childcare is an easy one to fix!

***Obviously, I’m not the first person who’s come up with this idea of “internships are for the privileged” – there’s an excellent blog post titled “Why I don’t take high school students into my lab” along the same lines. Even though their solution to the problem is different 🙂



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