Egging on female employees

Facebook, Apple and others are offering female staff the chance to freeze their eggs to help them forge ahead with their careers. Is it the ultimate staff benefit, or something scary?

Facebook and Apple, and more recently Virtus Health in Australia, have stirred up a lively global debate by offering to help their female employees to pay for freezing their eggs.

In fact, the companies have come under heavy fire; one commentator even described it as a form of eugenics. Others have accused them of trying to pressure women into choosing career over family, or suggested that it’s a plot by Silicon Valley men to get the women off their backs about marriage, so they can get back to their video games.

So in the interests of science, I conducted a poll of 13 young women in the Business Spectator and ABC newsrooms. I asked each of them two questions: do you think it’s a good idea, and would you do it?

The data were interesting, if slightly less than statistically valid given the sample size: 61.5 per cent of those interviewed said it was a good idea and 53.8 per cent said they would do it (one said it was a good idea, but she wouldn’t do it).

But perhaps the most interesting thing was the wide range of reactions. One respondent was horrified and thought it was the most appalling idea she had ever heard; another thought it was absolutely wonderful.

One commented that it was a bad idea because of the implied pressure to choose job over having a family.

Another said that, on balance, she liked it because she was troubled by the fact that her peak career years and peak childbearing years were coinciding.

Most of those in favour thought it was a generous employee benefit that would simply give them options – it was up to them whether to take it, and if taken whether to use the frozen eggs or just get pregnant naturally.

For none of these women was the subject boring. The matter of so organising their life to maximize career opportunities while not leaving it too late to have children is absolutely front of mind for many, if not most, young women.

For that reason alone, it should be front of mind for their employers.

It seems to me the first line of attack for companies wishing to retain talented female employees is decent child care.

Freezing eggs is very difficult, and the success rate is still quite low, and it basically just allows a woman to put off having children for about ten years, which raises the question: are the 30s the peak career years, or is the 40s?

A woman who has frozen some eggs might just as easily find herself under as much pressure in her 40s to put off having children as she was in her 30s, and the 50s is getting a bit too late to have kids, even if it were medically viable.

On the other hand, my next-door neighbor has just had her first baby at 46, having more or less achieved what she wanted at work. She and her husband are overjoyed, oblivious to the questioning looks from friends muttering about how old they’ll be when the child goes to school, and then uni.

Is the late 40s too late to have a child, so that you’re nearly 70 when he or she is 20? That, after all, is the obvious consequence of taking up Apple, Facebook or Virtus’s offer to freeze eggs.

With longer life expectancy these days, perhaps it isn’t, although if your late-life daughter does what you did, you’re unlikely to see any grandchildren.

As I did my newsroom poll and pondered the issues at stake for women, I reflected on my own career and family life.

The 30s and early 40s were definitely my peak career years, and yet I was lucky enough to have my first child at 31, my second at 33 and my third at 36. My wife tried combining work and childcare for a while and eventually gave up – staying at home with the kids, a decision she has never regretted.

But it definitely ended her career and meant her employer was denied any further contribution from her.

I managed to have it all – both career and family; for women it’s much harder and it often (usually?) involves making a tough choice.

The issue is doubly important because, apart from the immense personal cost to women, the failure of employers to maintain a viable career path for women during their child-bearing years damages productivity generally.

It’s probably the main reason there are still too few women in management and on boards, even though most graduates these days are women: when they hit their late 30s too many suddenly get left behind by men who are not the primary carer and therefore are more focused on the job.

Should all companies offer to pay for egg freezing? Perhaps in time it will become part of the benefits that firms need to offer women, but they should start with better childcare, either paying for it or providing it.