By Nadia Daneshvar
Faced with attracting women to join their predominantly male workforce, Facebook decided to offer an usual benefit: up to $20,000 in coverage toward egg freezing procedure and storage costs for female employees. Apple similarly has plans to offer both full- and part-time female employees the same coverage starting in January 2015. While many say the companies have taken a step toward gender equality in the workplace, others see it as a step in the wrong direction.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s recent revocation of egg freezing’s “experimental” status has caused an increase in the number of women opting to freeze their eggs for social or nonmedical reasons before they reach “advanced maternal ages.” But egg freezing does not come without risks and stigma. Nearly all stages involve risks (e.g., hormone injections and extraction, transfer, and gestation) and after two rounds of egg retrieval, the chance of live birth is just over 20% if eggs are harvested at or before age 25 and decreases with age: only 16% of women who underwent two rounds of egg freezing at age 30 will have live births. Other considerations include the increased risks associated with pregnancy in older ages.
Critics of employer coverage of social egg-freezing say it perpetuates the archaic, mother-as-childrearer expectation which is alive and well, even among today’s youth. Promoting such a mindset is problematic, they say, pointing to data that shows roughly equal proportions of working mothers and fathers report feeling stressed about balancing their career and family. In a recent survey roughly one fifth of women who froze their eggs noted that workplace inflexibility factored into their decision. Arguments against the benefit claim it allows this inflexibility to continue, as it’s predicted to, and that it doesn’t address the problem in preparation for when the eggs are eventually used to create families. Also, one notable gynecologist estimates only 5% of social egg freezers will end up actually taking advantage of their frozen stash, casting doubt on whether the egg freezing benefit is an appropriate allocation of resources.
Earlier this year, I discussed some of the sociological and ethical implications of employer-covered social egg freezing, arguing that it could reinforce the lack of workplace accommodations for pregnant or childrearing female employees and could eventually become a widespread expectation in the workplace. It’s no secret that working mothers face many barriers to successful careers. Mothers, as many studies have confirmed, are perceived as less competent and less committed to their work. There is also a widespread “flexibility stigma” in the U.S.: when researchers sent fake résumés to employers who had announced high-status job openings, employers were half as likely to respond to applicants whose résumés listed involvement in an elementary school parent-teacher association, insinuating the applicant was a mother. Moreover, in the U.S., the earning penalty for motherhood is roughly twice that of women in countries with extensive childcare policies financed by the public, and mothers make five percent less per hour, per child, than their childless counterparts. And unfortunately, as of 2014, the U.S. still lags far behind much of the world when it comes to paid leave for mothers.
In a recent survey, nearly 70% of women who left a technology-focused career said they did so because they became mothers. Less than 10% of the women who left had planned on being a stay-at-home mom at the outset of their career, and almost 90 percent of the women who left said they did not plan on returning to their tech career. Women who left the tech workplace mentioned inadequate maternity leave and a rigid work environment as contributory factors.
Facebook’s current family and parenting benefits include 18 weeks of paid leave for birth and non-birth parents of any gender as well as $4,000 in “baby cash” to new parents and contributions to daycare fees. Apple’s benefits package includes a flex account for dependent daycare, and earlier this month Apple announced a new paid parental leave policy that includes four weeks before expected delivery and 14 weeks after birth for birth mothers, and six weeks after birth for all non-birth parents. Notably, last year Facebook announced plans for a $120 million housing community that includes a hair salon, bike repair center, and doggy daycare, but, according to Fortune, no daycare for employees’ children.
When California’s estimated annual daycare costs for one infant are valued at $12,068, policies that reduce the burden of these costs for new families could be even more attractive for women in tech who want to start a family. Societies that have longer paid maternity and parental leave have more women in the labor force, so offering leave without financial penalties, more affordable childcare, or expanding paid paternity and family leave options could be better ways to attract female talent in male-dominated sectors, and would benefit those of any gender who want to start a family. Paid paternity leave can have additional benefits when it comes to changing gender norms. In Norway, for instance, a system of paid parental leave was designed to incentivize uptake by men, rather than women. The Norwegian policy sets aside a hefty amount for parental leave that is only usable if the father takes it. So far, the system has drastically affected the number of men who take parental leave which has influenced the dynamics of household labor, and has resulted in an increase in the number of employed women. The policy has even been linked to a steady increase in birthrate.
Other valued perks for family-minded employees include rooms for nursing at the workplace, on-site childcare, work-from-home policies, and flexible work schedules. With these alternatives in mind, increased family-friendly workplace accommodations could be more effective in attracting female talent than employer-coverage of risk-laden egg freezing procedures.