Last week I went for an interview with an award-winning research agency for a position as a junior research intern for 3 months, with the high likelihood of a full-time job upon completion. Now, any other graduating students know how invaluable (and rare) well-paid internships are, let alone well-paid internships which aim to hire their interns at the end of the process. Often interns end up getting used as free labour, are expected to work long hours in order to gain much sought after skills including tea-making and photocopying, and after putting their blood, sweat and tears into their internship in the hopes of a job usually end up getting turned out the door at the end so that the organisation/business/corporation can move onto the next desperate graduate.
As a result, I had never really had any interest in doing an internship before, given how exploitative they often are. So what drew me to this one?
Shortly before Christmas last year, I attended a Careers Event run by the History department at my university. With my graduation date approaching at a scarily fast pace, I thought it might be good to start thinking about that ever terrifying question for third-year students – what the hell am I going to do once I graduate? It was at this event that one of our History alumni spoke about working for said research agency and it immediately piqued my interest. I usually instantly dismiss research agencies due to a lot of them using bastardised social science methodology to exploit consumers. However, this one seemed different. Not only did they use ethnographic research methods (which as a student of Anthropology I am well versed in) but they also carried out long-term research into social issues for a variety of organisations and businesses with a view to improving services including why people aren’t investing in end of life care, the effects on vulnerable customers of being aggressively pursued by debt collectors, and the importance of investing in dementia care. Basically, it was right up my street and would allow me to continue engaging in research outside of the academic environment whilst I decided what further education I might want to do.
I immediately contacted the agency upon getting home and began to forge, what I believed to be, a very positive relationship with one of their HR team over a period of almost 6 months. I kept in touch with the agency to show my continued investment and interest in the agency, and as a result, was invited to apply for their June internship in which they would only be hiring 2 interns. In the middle of all of my emerging final year deadlines, I put myself to task in ensuring that I got my CV looking as professional as possible and that I wrote a banging cover letter. I continued to build upon the extensive research I had already done into the agency to ensure I appropriately used the right buzzwords and drew attention to why I felt I was more than qualified to do the internship. Within a few weeks, I was congratulated and told I had progressed to the next stage of the interview process in which I needed to submit a video of no longer than 3 minutes detailing my interest in the agency, the benefits of using ethnographic research, and where I wanted to take the internship. Thankfully, a good friend of mine kindly edited the video for me to make it look as good as possible and I sent it off. Another 1-2 weeks later, I received another email to congratulate me on producing a great video and, finally, inviting me to interview with the marketing and strategy director.
So where did it all go wrong?
Despite having been openly discussing my need for reasonable adjustments on the job, I was unfortunately unlucky in getting stuck with an 8.30-9.30am interview slot the day after I was due to attend an all-day academic conference. I raged about this for some time, remarking upon (what I felt) to be a lack of consideration into my needs as a disabled person and (at the time) felt that this did not a send out a positive signal from the agency. Despite these reservations, I thought it was worth going along so that I could actually see the deal in person and maybe get a clearer picture of what the working environment would be like, and what support I might expect from them.
The interview itself was quite a strange experience and I felt very uncertain immediately after leaving the interview, which never bodes well. In place of a structured interview, we had a more informal chat, which makes sense given the nature of the work. We spoke a bit about my work and presentations, where I want to go, why I want to work for the company etc, and it seemed to be going quite well at the beginning. However, about half an hour in the interview seemed to go a bit awry and my uncertainty began to increase. The interviewer (a middle-aged man wearing shorts and a t-shirt whilst lounging comfortably on the sofa) openly admitted to me that he didn’t like working with young men because he found them arrogant, that he believed himself to be a visionary who could *make* a great researcher but young men often didn’t listen to his advice so he preferred to work with young women, that he had no idea what or who he was looking for, and honestly remarked that he was very uncertain about me as he felt that I was too much like him at his age and that he would not hire his 25-year-old self. He felt that I had a very strong sense of identity (in regards to being disabled, queer, trans and working class) and that he had concerns about whether I could put my identity to one side in order to carry out the research. Not surprisingly, I was very taken aback. At the end of the interview, I was told that it was nice meeting me and having a chat. I left knowing that I would not be successful.
A few days ago the email finally flew into my inbox, confirming my suspicions. I had not got the internship. Reading through the feedback I felt a range of emotions; hurt, dismay, anger, guilt, suspicion, sadness, but mostly I felt like I was having a knife twisted into a very raw nerve. I will share the feedback below because I don’t think I could paraphrase the words myself:
I really enjoyed our conversation and you are clearly bright, articulate and passionate about research.
You are an unusually honest individual. On a personal level that made for an interesting and wide ranging discussion, but the ability to successfully navigate a variety of social situations with respondents, colleagues and clients is of critical importance in this role, and sometimes that requires a more nuanced approach. As I said in the interview, I would have likely found the role very challenging in my 20’s.
The relevance of Disney Values
Considering all that has been said, I’m sure you may be sat there wondering what on earth the relevance of Disney is in all of this and it has something to do with the massive influence that the animated Disney movies have had on me.
The first film that I ever saw in the cinema was the Lion King. I remember my nan’s husband reminiscing to me that I was so small when he took me to see the film at our local picture-house that he had to hold my seat down for the entire film as otherwise, I kept disappearing down the back of the seat! I believe that moment sparked a lifelong obsession with Disney and has continued to this very day. I was raised on the Disney films and was particularly obsessed with Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Aladdin as a young girl. Growing up, I found strength, comfort and role models in the Disney princesses. Their values of honesty, open-mindedness, spirit, morality, determination, courage, ambition and independence shaped me into the very person I am today.
Whenever I was made fun of for being bookish, I would seek comfort in Belle’s intelligence, kindness and love of books. When other people tried to tell me what to do or who I should be, I followed Jasmine and Pocahontas in standing up for myself and following my own path. When I was relentlessly bullied and was hospitalised for a mental health crisis, I turned to these characters to find comfort in their words and actions to help me to not only survive but rebuild my own self-worth.
Over the past few years, many of my friends have constantly joked that I am the most Gryffindor person they’ve ever known. Someone who always fights for what they believe in and for others, who always tries to do the “right” thing. Usually, this is something that I have always taken pride in. To me, these things are the essence of who I am as a person. But the older I get, the more conflict I seem to run into in regards to employment and education. Leading to a year long fight with my history department following a meeting in which I was completely humiliated by members of staff. Creating conflict with other students and resulting in being alienated by others. And of course, being turned down for jobs. Sadly, the feedback from this internship is not the first time I have lost out on important opportunities because of my character in which values like honesty, integrity, empathy, and commitment to doing the ‘right’ thing become framed as flaws due to often being seen as arrogance, inflexibility and judgemental.
Sadly, the situation becomes even more complicated when considered with my self-identification as an autistic person. Despite me often being relatively self-aware of the conflict that my character can create in regards to situations and other people, there is often little I can do. Many of these things are integral parts of who I am as a person and used to be something I was very proud of. After years of being bullied, I tried to take pride in my neurodiversity but over the past year, I have often been reduced to a sobbing mess because of my difference after multiple social, educational and employment rejections in which I am all too aware of what other people perceive as my failings.
Over the past few years, I have noticed that there seems to be a growing disparity and conflict between employers who work within a capitalist framework and others of my generation, especially those who are disabled. Many of us may identify with being raised to be kind and considerate to others, sharing, compassionate, and being honest. Yet, these things can come to be at odds with the working environment in which employers increasingly claim to want employees who are “flexible”, “nuanced” and “adaptable”, and use these things to routinely deny the employment of disabled people. This Guardian article from June 2016 estimated that despite Europe having anti-discrimination policies, the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people averages at about 20%, although I believe it to be much, much higher than that. Myself and others have found that time and time again we are passed over for jobs, despite being more than qualified and experienced, or finding ourselves losing our jobs whilst being given excuses that are in reality thinly veiled discrimination.
Where does this leave me?
Unfortunately, the feedback from this internship played upon some of my most raw insecurities and builds upon a number of knock-backs that I have experienced over the past year. From having to step down as the trans rep of my LGBTQ society, having emotional meltdowns at Nine Worlds due to feeling like an absolute misfit and struggling to make friends, to increased tensions with my academic departments, losing my student union elections and being rejected for a further job at the SU, and this internship, I feel acutely aware of my autism and the sad frustrations that it often causes. No matter how proud I try to be of myself and my neurodiversity, it is hard to find pride in something that seems to conflict with the rest of society so often. I don’t think I have ever cried so much over being ‘different’ as I have over the past year since being a teenager and sadly, I do not see this being resolved any time soon.
I do not know what the future holds for me and of course, it may be that whilst this opportunity wasn’t right there might be something better for me just around the corner. I try to stay optimistic, try not to let these things affect me too much and continue to find solace in the Disney princesses who taught me that it’s okay to just be me.