So Facebook and Apple are paying for female employees to freeze their eggs, to enable them to continue working for longer before having children, according to NBC news this week. It’s billed as the latest in a series of benefits provided by the corporate giants, as part of what’s termed a “perks arms race”.
But what message does it send to women? Does it say “we value you and want to do what’s best for you”? Or is the message more like “we don’t see babies as a good fit for your career”?
Deliberate or not, the latter is the message that seeps through. At a cynical level, it could be read as a targeted attempt by businesses to get what they can from female employees, before they become nuisances by going off to have babies. But even removing the cynical filter; allowing for the fact that this may not be the intention, that’s how women will hear it.
Surely any female employee working for a company that offers this benefit will feel obliged to at least consider it? And will some perhaps go through with it, in order to be seen as career-focused and driven? Could it become the badge of female ambition?
Apart from putting pressure on women to partake in egg-freezing, it may also induce them to delay having children naturally. A work environment that offers egg-freezing is implicitly hinting that having babies later in life is a good idea. It’s saying that having children is incompatible with career progression; that the two don’t mix.
For decades, women have been fighting to have both – to start a family and continue a career. And every woman knows that there’s a movable balance in that equation – an employee with her eye on the CEO’s office probably works longer hours and sees her kids less than the person who is looking to progress but not to the top position (and even there, there are exceptions, particularly in companies that value ability and productivity over quantity of hours worked).
Suggesting (deliberately or not) that delaying child rearing is optimal for women who want to continue their careers is a backwards step, and completely at odds with everything that career-women with children have been trying to achieve.
There’s also an underlying assumption that egg-freezing is a simple process. It involves injections, an egg harvesting procedure, and then IVF at a later stage. Egg-freezing for medical reasons makes sense. Or for women who would like to one day settle down with a partner but haven’t met the right person yet. Or even for career-purposes; as an insurance policy albeit with a non-guaranteed outcome. Where a woman chooses to do this herself, it is something practical. But with this being sold as a “perk” by large corporations, there is a risk that it will be perceived as a simple procedure, with a guaranteed family at a later stage.
Instead of paying for egg-freezing, why not put investment and resources into supporting women and men who choose to combine career and family?
Like supporting flexible working hours or remote working? Or onsite subsidized childcare? Or a benefits package that includes additional payments to be used for crèche? Or paid parental leave, so that fathers are incentivized to take time off, allowing mothers to return to work with greater peace of mind? Or, as this initiative comes from the US, how about some basic maternity leave?
The egg-freezing benefit suggests that women should stay in the workplace, spending all their time and energy for as long as possible, and then be put out the pasture to have children at a later age. It treats women like functional robots – a cog in the industrial wheel when they’re young, then out of sight when they’re done contributing everything they can in the workplace.
It separates career and family in an unnecessary and regressive manner. It tells young women that must choose between the two, or that they should delay having families if they want to succeed. The cost of leaning in has just gone up.