Why offer work/life balance, when you can just delay employees from having to carve out that pesky “family time” and other child-related demands, like maternity leave or god-forbid, family vacations? That’s the cynic’s reaction, at least, to news that major tech companies, including Facebook and Apple, will now offer a healthcare benefit which will pay the costs associated with freezing the eggs of female employees who want to extend their fertility options in order to focus on their careers.
It may not be the appropriate reaction, however.
The costs involved with egg freezing are not cheap - $10,000 for each round, and then another $500 per year in storage.
Apple, which recently began offering this option, covers costs under its fertility benefit, and Facebook under its surrogacy benefit. Both cover up to $20,000.
That these large companies are willing to pay for an expensive, elective procedure like this, however, speaks to the larger problem of their inability to attract women to work in the tech industry. Over the course of the past year, many major tech firms released “diversity reports,” whose findings indicated that they were still anything but.
For some women, the argument goes, knowing that their eggs are “on ice” is like an insurance plan of sorts. It’s a way to at least temporarily ignore the tickings of a biological clock which says you need to focus on finding a partner and/or planning a family, before your baby-making deadline runs out.
Still, while they say you can be back at work the next day after an egg-freezing procedure, it’s still a serious undertaking to consider - more so than going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned, for example. It’s not likely that women in large droves are going to freeze their eggs for the sole purpose of “leaning in” to their careers.
After all, “egg freezing,” doesn’t actually mean female fertility now extends into your forties or beyond. By nature, female fertility drops around 27 to 35. If you want to carry a child in your own womb, egg freezing doesn’t change anything - your biology still comes into play.
But eggs on ice give you more options - like if you have trouble conceiving and opt for in-vitro, or if you’re considering surrogacy. If anything, this benefit is really targeted toward women who are in these latter two groups - not those who are “putting work first,” and putting motherhood second.
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There’s still reason to be concerned, however.
Because it’s now an option at tech companies notorious for putting work-related tasks ahead of living life (the Apple Work habits blog post is frankly horrifying), women who begin “icing their eggs” and then moving up the corporate ladder could set a precedent for those who want to get ahead, too.
If egg freezing became a common perk, and then become a sort of social norm for the career-driven, it devastate those who believe not only that there is a world beyond their computer screen but there might actually be - gasp! - more value in enjoying it than there is in answering emails at 1 AM on a Sunday night.
It sounds crazy to think of something as serious as egg-freezing becoming a norm, but that’s the effect a “company-first, you-second” culture can have, when combined with a younger workforce already delaying their entry into adulthood.
In 2013, nearly 70% of mothers with children under 18 were either working or looking for work. But many women today in the millennial and post-millennial generation seem to be more open to the idea of putting their family life plans on hold.
To some extent, that decision is a byproduct of the women’s lib era, which fought for the rights we now take for granted. (My own mother-in-law, for example, had to go to court to win the right to continue to work while visibility pregnant.)
The changed mindset is also related to the fallout from the recession - millennials are saddled with student loans, stuck living at home with parents for much longer, and are generally getting much later starts to things like buying a home, getting married, and starting a family. They know the costs and sacrifices that come with having kids, and they’re not sure they want to take them on. Or they want to be financially sound when they do.
That means they need more time to focus on careers and growing their savings during their best child-bearing years - and companies like Facebook and Apple just gave them that opportunity. So that could actually draw more women to work for these companies - because now they have a “backup plan.” Even if the women don’t find a partner they want to start a family with, they can proceed to do so on their own later in life, when their fertility efforts might need a little push. (Like through in-vitro fertilizations or surrogacy.)
But egg-freezing certainly should not be the only option for women who want to have children and continue to work - or even excel at work - of course. And it shouldn’t become the norm for women who want to work in tech or anywhere else. It’s best if egg freezing is offered as one of many, many diverse options that help women plan for families and children.
Not the go-to option. Not the default.
Companies should cater also to women who want to have babies earlier in life when pregnancy risks are minimized, and they should offer benefits that help with childcare and expenses like on-campus daycares, after hours and emergency care, solid healthcare plans, educational/college savings plans, child-and-family friendly discount programs, help lines and parenting coaching, and so on.
And if they really want to attract women (and parents in general!), they might want to develop a workplace culture where you’re allowed to spend time with family after work without the guilt. Workplaces which don’t force you to take pre-vacations because you won’t ever take one after you arrive. Workplaces where carving out time to be a parent is respected, and where bosses and managers understand you can still do well and exceed expectations, even if you’re not working at all hours of the day and night.
(Oh, and while we’re at it? All these policies should apply to men too. After all, they’re supposed to 50/50 partners to their working wives these days, right?)
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The announcement of the egg freezing benefit comes at a time when support for women who “lean back” at work to make room for family is being subtly discouraged, which is dangerous. It’s not a good situation for children to never have parents around, even if they are super successful. The child doesn’t care about that.
Women leaders like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are preaching for women to never stop asking for more responsibilities - even when a baby is in their immediate future. The undercurrent to that movement, and to the changing mindset of the younger generation as well, is one where work is quietly being promoted as somehow more important and more valuable an effort than raising a family. It’s drawing a line between the women who choose to work, and those choose to slow down to focus on children instead (or those who would if they didn’t have to work).
But most powerful women in business today crawled their way up to the top in a male-dominated industry. They lead different lives. Their salaries can provide round-the-clock nannying. They can put a nursery in their office, if they want, after taking minimal maternity leave.
There may not be really be such a thing as true work/life balance, but companies can accommodate their female - and their male workers’ - desire to have a life outside of work, and enjoy their families, in addition to their successes in the business world.
And this should be their message to women when they roll out new benefits like egg freezing: this is but one option to help you have a family, but look, we have so many more!