Unpaid internships: Is our self-esteem too low to ask for pay?

I'm on yet another unpaid internship (three weeks at a national magazine, if you're wondering). Lying in my shared dorm I read that women are more likely to work unpaid, for longer, than men. 

That Saturday I meet up with the editor of my student magazine. She's working for free for a successful blogger. Her boss, apparently, wears diamonds and jets off to Portugal at a moment's notice, while my friend is slowly nursing a glass of water and telling me in hushed tones about her 'experience'. She's in a worse position than me because she's doing the fashion curcuit (I'm on lifestyle at the moment) and a lot of the women she meets don't understand her. She tells me that one shop assistant simply refused to believe my friend could not afford to buy any of the designer label items she was reviewing. She was told to, "Just put it on your dad's credit card." 

Our male ex-editor, by contrast, is running a successful website building business this summer. Our other 'senior' male collegue is working for a financial news -sourcing agency, a paid job he also holds during term time. I e-mail my ex-editor in desperation and ask whether I'm being an idiot. I tell him, "I don't feel like I deserve to be paid." He says I should start up my own news site online. I tell him the market is too saturated. I don't see how I could possibly stand out. 

Is this a low-self esteem woman thing? Y'no, part of the package of being a twenty-something girl? I feel like I spend a lot of my time trying to be Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, running around cities in stupid clothing and feeling incompetent. I wouldn't dare ask for money or compensation from a publishing house, newspaper, or magazine. I'm just happy to be in an office working. I just want to write. I just want to work. 

We are told that we're supposed to be these independent career women (in fabulous clothing) but we're also told to be polite and non-invasive and helpful and cheerful. You perform the same dutiful style of service for your bosses that you used to for your husband, except now there are millions of you and no-one knows your name. 

So why do we still accept unpaid internships as a way of getting into the 'nice' industries (charity sector, magazines, tv, newspapers, publishing, government). Have you noticed it's mostly the professional industries with more women than men who offer unpaid work? There are few engineering internships that don't pay. And the unpaid internship culture only emerged when women started to enter the workforce in earnest. 

Sisters, we need to recognise that there is monetary value in the work that we do. I know a woman's work is never done, but shall we at least ask for some expenses? Or failing that, take some tips from the boys, and break out on our own. Many other women have done it before us, we just need to have a little confidence.

- Rebecca