Egg freezing – job perk or chilling effect?
Employees at Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Apple are not short on generous perks: extended family leave, sleek on-site medical centres for employees, free massages and sweet shops. Now there’s up to US$20,000 in coverage for egg freezing for non-medical reasons, allowing women to potentially press the pause button on their fertility.
NBC News reports that Apple will begin offering the perk in January under its fertility benefit. Facebook began offering the coverage earlier this year as part of its surrogacy benefit.
The two tech giants appear to be the first major companies to do so for non-medical reasons. In a sign of the perk’s rarity, neither the Society of Human Resources Management nor the Families and Work Institute, a non-profit-making enterprise that does research on workplace issues, have ever asked about egg freezing as a benefit in surveys.
While the perk might seem like just another weapon in what has been called the “perks arms race” of Silicon Valley, it could also resonate in particular with millennial employees who are getting married and having children later than ever before. It could also have an outsized effect on the trajectory of women’s careers.
Advocates of the increasingly popular practice say it gives women more choice and control, allowing them to potentially put off parenthood until it’s the right time for them or their careers.
NBC News reports a surge in interest since the “experimental” label on egg freezing was lifted two years ago. Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover story on the issue in April called “Free your eggs, free your career”. The article cites a New York University doctor who says the procedure has gone from 5 per cent of his clinic’s practice five years ago – when it was mostly for medical reasons – to a third of it now, with most being non-medical.
Some experts on gender and work-life issues see potential conflicts for companies that pay for egg freezing. Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, calls it a laudable benefit as long as it is offered in the right context. “If women are asking for it, I think it makes sense to give it to them. But it shouldn’t be a substitute for creating a workplace where motherhood is compatible with a high-powered career.”
Facebook, for its part, subsidises day care and gives new parents four months of paid leave. And Apple noted in a statement that it continues to expand its benefits for women and wants “to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families”.
Still, the move could be risky if the coverage is offered somewhere that doesn’t offer other family-friendly benefits. Or, it could send the wrong signal in a culture that already only rewards people who commit to putting work above all else, says Anne Weisberg, a senior vice-president at the Families and Work Institute. “If those are the signals, people will read a policy like this not as ‘We want to give people more options’, but as ‘This is what we expect’.”
The news made Weisberg think of how little has changed since she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985. At the time, the female law partners she spoke with had all waited until they were partners to have children, only to discover it actually was not any easier to wait. It was harder physically and harder professionally, they told her.
But at too many companies, Weisberg says, putting off children is considered the way to go. “Most organisations are still clinging to that male lifecycle model where, if you can’t have the pedal to the metal in your mid-30s to mid-40s, you’re out of the game.”