Putting all your eggs in one frozen basket

02 December 2014

Doggy day-care, unlimited holidays, and personal trainers – some companies offer their lucky employees perks which see the rest of us stare into our pre-eight-thirty porridge in a jealous rage.

There is, however, a new variety of benefit on offer that is causing a little more controversy than the usual courtesy car.

Apple and Facebook have cooked up the idea of providing female staff the opportunity to have their eggs frozen. This is not because they have hired in Heston Blumenthal to make breakfast. Rather, these companies are offering women the choice to delay having children until they reach a more 'stable' point in their careers, in a confused bid to attract and retain more female employees.

Perhaps, for some women, this is the chance they have been waiting for. With an average cost of over $20,000, oocyte cryopreservation (the egg-freezing procedure) is prohibitively expensive and only usually available to a high-earning few. Sponsors claim that this perk is empowering; that it affords many women the opportunity to defer childbearing until a more manageable point in their lives. However, away from the lure of its financial worth a darker picture emerges, and it appears that the benefit may not be entirely sunny-side up.

The offer of egg-freezing suggests that having children is incompatible with the early stages of a female career. Jessica Cussins of the Center for Genetics and Society, cuts to the heart of the issue in her translation of this seemingly generous move, stating that "surely what they meant to say was, 'We want women at Apple to spend more of their lives working for us without a family to distract them'". It certainly seems this way. The offer also suggests that there is a better time to have children, and raises the question of exactly when this time will come. As careers grow progressively lengthier, there are no assurances that life will be less demanding in ten years' time. Indeed, egg-freezing may defer the pressures of parenthood to a point at which our working lives could be at their busiest.

There are also concerns that those who do not choose this option will be considered less dedicated to their careers. According to Business in the Community's 'Project 28-40', 81% of female non-parents thought that having children would affect their career progression. Such statistics show that it is likely that by casting this subliminal spell over their employees' reproductive choices, these companies may influence some women to choose not to have children at all.

Even more alarmingly, there has been a real lack of focus on the medical facts. Egg-freezing is neither quick nor easy. It is a six week long process that can leave the patient in considerable pain. There are high failure rates, and only 3 in 10 will actually end up pregnant. It is easy to conceive of a dystopian reality where a twenty five year old is made to feel as though she ought to submit to an invasive and painful procedure, only to find out that she cannot have children at all.

What is certain is that these are companies disproportionately populated by men. Indeed, staff at Apple and Facebook are respectively 70 and 69 per cent male. Yet they are not offering male employees the chance to freeze sperm. It is also perhaps a symptom of the tech sector, in which every problem – here that of how to juggle the demands of a career and a family - must have a quick-fix solution.

That approach is entirely misguided in this instance. Corporates should instead focus their efforts, and indeed money, on instigating and improving existing systems that will allow women to fulfil both the roles of employee and mother as best as they possibly can. Whether this is done by supporting the costs of childcare or encouraging male employees to take more paternity leave is up to the company, but an understanding that it is possible to do both must be entrenched and promoted. The Onion may have triggered a few sniggers with its satirical headline "Facebook Offers to Freeze Female Employees' Newborn Children", but it addresses an important point, namely that oocyte cryopreservation is not the answer to a significant and regrettably long-standing problem. So whilst I might jump at the chance to bring my dog to my desk, I shall remain content with a free breakfast if I can keep my eggs as they are.

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