Evaluating Company Culture as an Intern

Every summer, thousands of engineering students participate in internships. With everything that has happened these experiences may look a little different than they have in the past but there is a dynamic within these internships I want to talk about today.

I want to discuss the power you have as an intern.

My Story

In 2017 I had a summer internship in the IT department of a big company. It was the typical engineering internship that had great perks including branded backpacks and polos, paid time off as an intern, great gyms on campus among others. We spent the first few days in orientation where everything was high energy and exciting. My first hint that something was off was when the man talking about the dress code got to the topic of leggings. He said that leggings should be worn tastefully and “You know certain people can wear leggings so just decide if you are one of those people” I heard it, the girl next to me leaned over and said “he did not just say that” and no one else seemed to notice.

As the internship progressed myself and the other female intern on my team weren’t given tasks, and the male intern would do the tasks we were given and then brag about it in meetings. He spoke over and interrupted us all the time and on multiple occasions said “I can talk about it and you can take notes”

This alone was annoying but my real frustration came when I asked to meet with the intern program coordinator. I wanted to bring up my concerns that had been echoed by other interns about the lack of inclusion in meetings and work distribution. My goal was simply to bring it to their attention with the hope that they would figure out how to promote not just diversity, but inclusion in their internship program.

She explained that it was a company with older values and alot of men and that it was on me to speak up for myself in meetings. I explained that I had and she simply repeated herself. She then explained that they spend thousands of dollars / year to recruit at the SWE, NSBE and Grace Hopper career fairs. 

At that point I saw no way forward with her and decided to meet with my female supervisor instead. This was slightly more productive, but later came back on me. The first woman I talked to took my conversation with my other supervisor to mean that I was going around her or complaining that she wasn’t taking me seriously

None of this was handled as it should have been and as I thought about it more I began to see that there were no women and no people of color in leadership in IT, the LGBTQ+ employee resource group was sort of laughed at when they would have events, and no one in my department was promoting or encouraging us to attend round table discussions on diversity that happened every few months.

Your Goal as an Intern

As an intern it can be frustrating because you want the company to like you and eventually hire you. The thing is, an internship is not just a chance for the company to evaluate you but also a chance for you to evaluate the company.

It is also important to pay attention to how the company includes other minorities outside of how you identify. Maybe they recognize and support not just women but women of color? Are they inclusive to the LGBTQ community? Are their other underrepresented minorities that are present but not included or not present at all?

I do believe that some of the issues are accidental or the result of a few individuals who lack emotional intelligence but what is really telling is how the company and your intern program handle these problems when you bring it to their attention.

The goal is for you to be fully yourself and get an understanding of whether this company supports you and others being who you are.

Strategies

I want to outline how you as an intern can hold your company accountable and learn more about the company based on its reaction. Please note that I am not encouraging you to “test” you coworkers or supervisors, simply to be aware, ask questions and evaluate.

When you are being ignored in meetings, not given work or simply not included in other ways:

Start by making an effort to insert yourself in situations. Ask questions like:

“I’m interested in this project, do you see a way that I could contribute?” 

“Before the meeting wraps up, would you mind if I asked a few questions/ updated you on my status” 

If you are being asked to do the secretarial tasks, ask if those tasks can rotate.

If you are being talked over don’t be afraid to go back with a statement like “as I was saying earlier” 

When this strategy shows no results

Talk to your supervisor and be prepared to state what the issue is, give specific examples and let them know what you have tried to fix the situation as it happens. Also be prepared to let them know how they can support you.

How they respond to this is really telling. Do they take your suggestions and make a change or do things stay the same. 

If things stay the same don’t be afraid to take it to your intern program coordinator. Their response can let you know if it is just one bad supervisor or the whole company culture.

When someone makes an off comment:

This always feels like a tricky situation but the truth is it’s not. You need to call these out as they happen. For a great guide on how to do this check out this awesome article.

https://hbr.org/2017/02/how-to-respond-to-an-offensive-comment-at-work

When someone else is not being treated fairly

This is a big one. It is important for you to stand up for things that affect you but it is almost more important to be an ally to others. A lot of tech companies are aware of the challenges faced by women in STEM and are making an effort to better educate their workforce on this topic but many others are left out of this effort. If the company supports you but not other minorities in the field, that is not a good company culture! Speak up for others, ask other interns about their experience and continue to evaluate how the company responds and whether it is an environment you want to work in.

As an intern this is scary and it can be tempting to “not cause trouble” but knowing the company culture is so important! As many people like myself are trying to learn how to be an ally in the workplace, this is one step you can take to speak up for yourself and others.

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