‘They say we are here to learn’: Female interns’ strategies of success in politics


By Maja Wadstein

When I started at the university three years ago I was already looking forward to graduate. The study in itself seemed interesting, but what really motivated me was the opportunity to pursue a successful career which an education could give me. Studying political sciences has led me to dream of working with social policies in the future. For me, success is to feel that I have accomplished these professional goals and that I am working at something meaningful that is contributing to society. However, with dreams and goals come doubts. What if I am not able to make my dreams come true? In fact, instead of feeling excited to graduate from university I now feel scared of not being able to succeed in my new working life. As I am about to start my career the pressure arises of making strategic decisions in order to be professionally successful, but will I be taken seriously? Or will I, as a young woman, see myself placed at the bottom of an adult male-dominated hierarchy at the political workplace? Could it be that while I am working on social issues like inequality I will experience it myself first-hand on the workplace?

The topic of my research paper is influenced by these personal dreams and anxieties regarding my own future career in politics. Looking at previous research on women in politics it seems that my concerns may be grounded in reality. Politics is defined as a male-dominated arena associated with masculine behaviors and experiences, which creates an image of politicians based on masculine stereotypes. Women do not fit into this picture and discrimination based on gender makes it difficult for them to be successful (Meeks, 2012:176). Article 7 in the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) claims the importance of women and men participating in politics and public life on equal terms (un.org, 2014). Sweden, my home country, was the first country to sign the convention and is also noted as one of the most gender-equal countries in the world (unwomen.se, 2014). But this image may be overrated and partly untrue. Looking at the labor market as a whole, statistics show that there are only a few Swedish women holding senior management positions (Carlsson & Marjavaara, 2009:4).

But what about being a young woman in politics? This subject is not yet thoroughly covered by previous research. The aim of this paper is thus to tell the story of young women, like myself, who have an interest in politics and therefore spend years of academic study in political sciences. What distinguishes the interviewees’ experiences from my own is that they have actually gained some experience of working in politics by doing internships. At the time of the interviews the women in my research were interns abroad in various diplomatic and political organizations and departments in Brussels and Berlin. I am interested in how these young women experience their first encounter with their future career path and what impression they are left with after trying to apply their theoretical knowledge of politics in practice for the first time. My early reflections on this topic resulted in the following research question: How do young female interns working in the field of politics experience power relations at the workplace, and what strategies do they use in order to succeed in this field? Because I am part of the research group, my own lived experience has affected the perspective I took in the research. Hopefully this has benefited the research by enabling me to put myself easily in the interviewees’ position, though I have also been cautious of the risk of being too subjective.

The material is based on in-depth interviews via Skype with Alexia, Bella and Charlotte (all names are pseudonyms), who are all Swedish young women between 22 and 27 years old. I also interviewed 27-year old Nicky from Germany to add a transnational perspective and compare the experiences of Swedish and German women. The interviews followed a semi-structured frame with three main themes: ‘A day as an intern’, ‘Experiences and feelings’, and ‘Future success’. Examples of the questions I asked were: Why did you apply for an internship abroad? Do you think you are or will be successful and why? Do you sense that there is a hierarchical structure on the workplace and how do you react to that? But the aim was to give the interviewees room to tell their own stories which in the end meant that each interview was uniquely constructed.

My research is thus based on individual young women’s local experiences and practices. However, the experience of the internship is also influenced by the globalization of markets with transnational flows of production factors, such as labor. Globalization of the labor market has opened up new possibilities for young people’s careers, such as the chance to work abroad (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2005:21, 23). Working in politics, and especially in a member state of the European Union which is a centralized transnational organization, makes employees and interns closely connected to an international work environment. This means that the interns are confronted with not only Swedish or German, but also other countries’ norms and values regarding young women in politics. The global labor market is in turn conditioned by a neoliberal order where the influence of flexible capital not only creates new possibilities, but also contributes to an increasing employment insecurity for the younger generation. There is no longer a clear career path to follow, which puts pressure on young individuals to shape their own future (Flanagan, 2008:127-8). This privatization of risks as a result of a mounting responsibility to become successful by own force brings together the youth of today in a common structure of feeling (Kennelly, 2009:294). This state of mind can explain the anxieties I have towards my own future, which in turn set the structural mood for my entire research.

‘I try to think that there are no obstacles to success’

During the interviews I asked the women to define success and they all related it to their work life. They were all convinced that success was about having a fun job, which meant doing something meaningful both for themselves and for other people.

‘Success is to have a fun and important job. In that sense, it shouldn’t feel like a job.’ (Charlotte)

‘When I have succeeded, I’ll be somewhere where I feel I have accomplished something. I want to have a lot of responsibility and not being subordinate.’ (Bella)

They focused on success as a future condition that was a goal to strive for and not as a definition of their current lives as interns. However, Alexia and Bella considered doing an internship as part of the process of becoming successful professionally. Their argument was that an internship abroad could benefit their future careers by giving them useful skills that could make their CV stand out when applying for jobs. The opportunity to network with people in the political sphere and make useful contacts was also mentioned. Especially by Nicky, who told me that the internship could help her to eventually find a job abroad. In other words, applying for an internship can in itself be a strategy in order to better ones chances of getting a successful job in the future.

To be strategic is to purposely position oneself in relation to the social and cultural context. This is how I use the concept of agency to interpret how the interviewees are constructing their identities based on practice and experience. My aim is not to represent them as victims of structural conditions, but to see them as active youth subjects (Bucholtz, 2002:532; Janssen et al. 2006:136,143). Agency is highlighted in Meeks’ (2012:177, 187) study of the gendered media discourse during American elections, in which she examines the positions taken by the female political candidates. These women followed strategies to gain voters by hiding their feminine characteristics and instead adopting masculine features or taking on masculine political issues that were valued higher. Janssens et al. (2006:134, 143), in their study of women in expatriate management positions, also look at how successful women produce identities in order to reach professional success. They point at three structural myths as particularly influential in the discourse concerning women’s identity construction in relation to men on the international workplace. These myths concern gender, organizational hierarchy and western culture. The women’s agency becomes visible when they gain power during their international assignments by using these three power axes that would otherwise work as barriers. This is done by strategically positioning themselves within the power structures by interpreting where they are the most influential. The women also turned to their capabilities and used that as a source of power (Janssen et al. 2006:144).

Back to my interviews. As we came to reflect on their future careers the discussion led us to talking about goals. While Nicky told me straight away she wanted to be an economic adviser, it was difficult at first for the Swedish women to talk about their goals with me, mostly because they felt that they did not have a clear vision of their future careers. This became a source of anxiety in itself.

‘I don’t know what position I want to have in the future or if I even want to work in politics. I feel kind of confused at the moment, and I’m worried that people who want this more than I do will work harder to get it. How am I going to compete with that?’ (Alexia)

The Swedish women worried that this lack of direction would work as an obstacle for them to become successful. However, further on in the interview they actually seemed more confident about their future.

‘I try to think that there are no obstacles. I might not succeed in everything I do, but to fail, I actually do not see it happening for me. It would have been if I suddenly could not cope with it anymore for some reason. But honestly, after I started my internship and met a lot of working people, I have gotten less worried when realizing that you always end up somewhere. Everything I’ve done so far has led me somewhere. Of course I doubt my own ability, but it comes and goes.’ (Bella)

Both Bella and Alexia wanted to work in a progressive field, maybe something to do with foreign policy or in an NGO. According to Alexia, the experience of the internship made her more aware of the variety of possible career paths the broad political job sector has to offer.

‘It has helped me to figure out what I’m actually interested in working with in the future.’ (Alexia)

To learn how to navigate the labor market in order to find successful positions is about obtaining cultural capital. In today’s insecure labor market with a privatization of risks as mentioned earlier, young people need to enhance their employability in order to get successful jobs. The notion of employability means to improve one’s cultural capital by understanding how the labour market works, but also to shape a work identity through social interactions and learn how to network and thus strengthen one’s social capital (Smith, 2010:180,184-5). Doing internships works as a strategy to develop employability for a future career, but it is also an opportunity for interns to show the skills they have already acquired and prove their potential (Smith, 2010:190).

‘What job can be worth sacrificing your family for?’

Charlotte and Nicky also found that the internship helped them figure out their future goals, but different from the others they did not strive for a future in politics. Charlotte explained to me that after studying political sciences and particularly after doing an internship she had learned that politics is a very narrow-minded sphere where everything is either black or white.

‘I don’t like how political parties work. To think “us versus them” is not the right way to solve problems in society. I would rather work with specific issues which I’m interested in, such as trafficking and prostitution, but from a politically independent position.’ (Charlotte)

Nicky was particularly resentful about the political field for another reason; she did not think that being a politician or a diplomat is a family-friendly job due to the long work hours and frequent travels. This concern regarding the job taking up too much time and energy was also shared by Alexia and Charlotte. Being exposed to the stressful environment at their internship has made them think of the meaning of life-and-work balance.

‘I think it’s terrible how people nowadays just work and work. For what? To make money? What job can be worth sacrificing your children and family for?’ (Charlotte)

Previous research shows that a lot of women are confronted with this issue because of their close connection to care responsibilities within the family. This social role assigned to women is considered to be a barrier to female participation in the labor market. Men are not expected to have the same priorities towards care, which makes balancing work and family responsibilities an issue for women, not for men (Carlsson & Marjavaara, 2009:4). According to gender theory, gender is a social practice that is constantly shaped and reproduced by women and men. Masculinity and femininity are therefore defined as socially constructed stereotypes, creating gender-specific roles and identities which people adopt due to expectations from society (Daly & Rake, 2003:37f; Meeks, 2012:176). This creates a hierarchical structure called gender relations which is intertwined with inequality and powered by two logics. First, the logic of separation which creates differences between women and men and turns them into opposites. Second, the logic of male superiority which means that male attributes, masculinity, tend to be valued higher than feminine attributes (Hirdman, 1992:228f).

However, the effect of gender relations on perceptions of success may differ according to personal circumstances and relationships. Charlotte admitted that her priorities have changed since she fell in love with her current boyfriend.

‘When you know that you want to spend the rest of your life with that person, “I” is no longer important, “WE” are.’ (Charlotte)

She continued by saying that working abroad is no longer an option for her, though this is not about sacrificing her own goals for him. Success, for her, is about coming to the realization that success in itself is not the most important factor in her pursuit of happiness. Therefore, when talking about obstacles to becoming successful, she did not perceive family life and having children as something that holds her back in life. As Alexia explained, having children is more of a problem for women’s careers in other European countries where women are generally expected to take a bigger part of childcare responsibilities, and not in Sweden. This was reflected in Nicky’s experience in Germany. She thought having children was a big obstacle for her and therefore she showed a completely different approach to family compared to the Swedish women.

‘Of course you can work your way up in Germany, but there is definitely a limit. Especially if you are planning on having kids at some point or just happen to be in the age where most people have children. Your employers automatically let you go and hire a man instead. I have seen it so often and it has happened to me as well.’ (Nicky)

Nicky told me that she does not see herself becoming successful in Germany. She has a Canadian boyfriend and is therefore planning on moving there or to another European country with him in the near future.

‘It’s invisible, but something everyone is aware of’

After reading previous studies of women in politics and learning about the two logics of gender relations I expected to find the women I interviewed to be critical of a patriarchal hierarchy on the workplace and that they might experience difficulties succeeding because of the male-superiority norms. Indeed, the interviewees all acknowledged some kind of hierarchical structure on the workplace, but to varying degrees. While Alexia hardly thought about it, Charlotte stated that being an intern means being at the bottom of a hierarchy. When I asked her to describe this hierarchy she told me:

‘It is difficult because it’s invisible, but at the same time something everyone is aware of and adjust themselves to.’ (Charlotte)

When continuing the discussion, power structures related to age, work experience and gender, in line with the research by Janssens et al. (2006) about multiple power axes in the labor market, became more noticeable. Charlotte described the work environment as dominated by men. Not in numbers, but the rules of the game were in favor of the men because they held the high positions. This illuminates gender relations as a tangible, albeit ‘invisible’, structure within the workplace. The Swedish women in my research, who worked in Swedish offices in Brussels and Berlin, all noticed an even more male-dominated environment at meetings and seminars outside of their own office. Both Alexia and Bella compared the Swedish office with their experiences at similar departments belonging to other European countries, and they concluded that Swedish politics is probably more gender equal. Nicky’s stories about her workplace confirmed these opinions. She compared her workplace with her former experience working in Germany and she thought that the environment at her current internship, where she works with Canadians, was more gender equal.

‘Women have the highest positions at the office and men have lower positions. It’s totally the opposite from Germany because there it is always a men’s club at the political departments.’ (Nicky)

Except for gender relations I also found that the interns had experienced how their young age and their lack of work experience put them at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy. Charlotte told me that one way of illuminating the power relations at her workplace was to look at the age difference. Everyone was 10-15 years older than her which put her in a lower position. The link between age and power is also illustrated in Bella’s answer. She got the feeling that everyone was treated equally at her workplace and she was surprised how easy it was to be included in the group. The reason, she explained, was that everyone was of the same age group. She described the employees as young, and also linked age to gender relations when realizing that the mix of women and men at the office could have something to do with her being accepted, and thus she recognized an intersection of multiple power structures:

‘If there were only older men working here I think there would be a different situation.’ (Bella)

Even though Alexia had not thought much about hierarchy during her internship, when discussing her future with me she also linked age to power deriving from capability and expertise. She wants to work as a politician, but not until she is older. Although there are young competent politicians, she considered age and work experience as crucial for the job of politician in order to make informed and qualified decisions. This was important for her because those decisions may affect other people’s lives.

‘It’s about earning respect’

Agency as a positioning of oneself in relation to existing power structures in order to gain success can be defined as applying a style of appropriation in response to the social and cultural context. This means that the way the interns act at the workplace can be seen as a strategy of performance (Bucholtz, 2002:542). Participation in the labor market is thus about performing identity to demonstrate one’s employability (Smith, 2010:291). Because the interviews were done via Skype I did not have the chance to actually observe how the young women acted at their internships. I had to rely on their own descriptions of their performance and thus their own understanding of how they position themselves in relation to power structures in their environment. The findings showed that if hierarchy was difficult to identify when being asked about directly, it became more tangible for the interviewees when talking about ‘earning respect’ and being recognized as an important person at the workplace.

‘It is about earning respect from the mentor and the employees by doing a good job and then they will appreciate you more. Respect comes with competence.’ (Charlotte)

From a structural perspective one could describe respect as power, and by being recognized as capable of doing a good job the interns earn a more powerful position within the workplace. To position themselves on the power axe of expertise and capability was important for the interns in order to compensate for their young age and gender, and become successful.

‘I work harder than everyone else. I’m always early at the workplace and the last one to leave.’ (Nicky)

Respect is in turn reflected in how much freedom the intern gets. Charlotte did not have a lot of responsibilities in the beginning, but after learning how to meet the expectations of her mentor and having her improvements recognized she was allowed more freedom to do things her own way. However, interns are not expected to shine.

‘They expect me to do the best I can and I try to meet their expectations by not bending away from any tasks. They say that I’m here to learn and that I must let them know if it is too stressful, and thinking about that takes off some of the pressure. However, I don’t always do as they say because I don’t want to seem lazy.’ (Bella)

Paradoxically, interns gain respect by doing a good job and therefore position themselves on the power axe of expertise, but at the same time they are not supposed to do the job as good as an employee. Alexia and Bella experienced that it was difficult to know what was expected of them, and it was then that otherwise fun tasks became stressful. Charlotte who had succeeded in earning respect still felt her low position. She recalled feeling downgraded once during a meeting with her mentor in his office when a person with a higher position in the department stormed in and interrupted them by talking about something perceived as more important. This also happened a lot at the weekly staff meetings, where the male boss listened with interest to people working in departments handling political and economic affairs, but interrupted people working in the administrative office. Administrative tasks were the least respected, and they were largely done by female employees. This shows how the power of respect was expressed in social interactions at the office where gender relations and the power of expertise intersect. Following the logic of gender relations (Hirdman, 1992), work tasks perceived as masculine were valued higher, and this was also reflected in how the interns themselves expressed resentment towards their own administrative tasks. Consequently, the interns also positioned themselves away from the more ‘feminine’ parts of their work. Charlotte told me about another female co-intern who was treated as an assistant. Charlotte described this as something negative because of the submissive position she was put in.

‘She does everything for the mentor, iron shirts, fetch coffee, and it is so submissive and just too cute, ugh.. People who do this will never become successful and they will not be respected.’ (Charlotte)

‘I do it out of respect’

To perform well work-wise was not the only way the interviewees earned respect at their internships. They also used their social skills and appearance. In general, the interns tried to be careful not to act as if they knew more than they did. It was about being aware of their own position as interns within the hierarchy and making the most of it without being perceived as a show-off. Alexia told me that she knew that employees had a lot more experience than her and she would never in some way show it if she thought someone did a bad job.

‘I do it out of respect for the other person because the people working in politics have already succeeded, and the reason they have succeeded is probably because they have acted in ways which has brought them to the position they are in today.’ (Alexia)

Alexia further described how she tried to observe how the more experienced employees handled certain situations such as conflicts among co-workers. The purpose was to learn the social codes by reflecting on what they did and then thinking of what she could have done differently. Alexia thinks it is important to pay attention to the social environment at the workplace in order to learn how to gain respect. She also tried to tone down her loud personality and dress in a way so she would not stand out to much, especially on seminars and assignments outside the Swedish office. Such attempts to improve social skills can be linked to enhancing employability by developing social and cultural capital while working in the field of politics (Smith, 2010). But Alexia did not only listen and learn. She also drew on her knowledge of the political terminology which she had acquired during her studies in political sciences. When Alexia felt confident, she attempted to make use of the social skills she learned from the office together with her theoretical skills in her social interactions with mentors and other employees. Thus, the internship also worked as an opportunity to demonstrate employability by combining the social and cultural capital already acquired from university with the new skills acquired at the internship (Smith, 2010).

‘My social skills have improved because of my education. It’s like, when I was on a seminar with politicians I dared to ask questions because I was interested and knew something about the policy issues they were discussing.’ (Alexia)

‘You should be your own person’

Neither Alexia nor Charlotte could reflect on whether they behaved in a masculine way or not, but they thought that acting more as ‘one of the guys’ could give them some advantage. However, in that regard the female interns had to perform a balancing act, as Charlotte also mentioned that being too friendly with a male employee would be considered inappropriate. Social interactions between female interns and male employees could have a sexual undertone which resulted in male mentors having a more friendly relationship with their male interns. Nicky on the other hand thought there was no point in trying to act more as a man at work.

‘You should be your own person. Otherwise you waste a lot of time on performing a role instead of doing a good job.’ (Nicky)

However, it was Nicky who had experienced a few situations at her internship which she thought were bordering on sexual harassment. She told me about a female co-intern who deliberately wore pants and flat shoes to be more masculine, and when Nicky herself wore a similar outfit one day two male employees approached her.

‘They told me that it sounded like I was sneaking today, and I answered – I just have flat shoes on. Isn’t the noise from heals annoying anyways? They responded saying – no, we associate that sound with other stuff. Kind of nice to hear actually.’ (Nicky)

This could be an example of the sexual undertone at the workplace which Charlotte talked about. It could also be a way for the employees to express their power over Nicky and put her in place when she was not acting feminine. Nicky said that she really felt like an intern in that situation because they would never have treated a female colleague like that. Her position as an intern made it possible for the male employees to be disrespectful. However, female interns do not have to accept this situation passively. Nicky’s reaction shows another strategy the women used. They showed their dislike of their submissive position by expressing it. Nicky reprimanded the male employees because she thought they had crossed a line. To be outspoken was a strategy Charlotte also used.

‘I was straight forward and outspoken about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do from the beginning, and they liked that.’ (Charlotte)

Charlotte expressed her dislike of the patriarchal hierarchy at the workplace to other employees and got endorsement for doing so. She had a conversation with a female employee at lunch one day about the male-dominated environment. The employee told Charlotte that things are changing and that they will need people like her in the future who do not care about hierarchy in order for them to dismantle it. While Charlotte used her outspokenness about the patriarchal structure to gain respect from a female employee, Bella expressed a more relaxed approach towards the question of existing gender hierarchies. She recognized there being some kind of social order and argued that it is to be expected when working in this type of political environment. Instead of being critical as Charlotte was, to accept the current order could also be a strategy in order to succeed.


It can be concluded that the young female interns had all experienced structures of power associated with gender, age and work experience during their internships in the field of politics. This could be expressed as a hierarchy of respect where being respected, but also to act respectfully, was perceived as important means and measures of power and success. Being aware of these conditions was part of the interns’ strategy and enabled them to purposely position themselves within the existing power structures in various ways in order to gain respect. What struck me most was that the internship in itself was the most important strategy they used to become successful in the future and therefore the most powerful act of agency they expressed. By improving their social and cultural capital during the internship they were able to enhance their employability. My research thus tells the story of young women who empower themselves by acknowledging forces that are more powerful than themselves, and then using this knowledge to pursue successful strategies. However, regarding future perspective, the experience of being a young woman in politics differs between nationalities. The most striking difference between the two nationalities in my research concerns expectations of family and work balance. While Nicky did not foresee a successful future for herself in Germany nor in politics because of the difficulties of being a mother and still pursue a career, the Swedish women did not recognize family as an obstacle for their success.

My research findings could have made me feel even more anxious about my own future. How can a person like me, who has not done an internship, compete with these empowered women in the labor market? But instead I feel uplifted and positive towards working in the field of politics. Not because my findings as such give me more reason for optimism about my own future, but because the research process has made me aware of the obstacles I might encounter when working in politics. To write this paper has been a way for me to reflect on my own future by listening to the stories of others and learning from their experiences, which in turn has helped me to understand my own part in a bigger whole. Agency is about learning through discovery. So in a way, by doing this research I have strategically positioned myself in order to become successful in my future career. The process has made me discover my own agency and further taught me how to use it.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


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Cover illustration: Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli brings her child to work at the European Parliament. © Reuters