Hold on to your ovaries. Silicon Valley is about to disrupt motherhood.
Starting in January 2015, Apple will join Facebook in covering the cost of egg freezing for female employees, hypothetically allowing them to work further into their childbearing years with less fear of reduced fertility. As NBC News reports, although many employers cover egg freezing for women who are about to undergo chemotherapy, Apple and Facebook will be the first major firms to cover the technique for elective use. The firms will each offer $20,000 in coverage, enough for two harvesting rounds per employee.
Apple is already positioning egg freezing as a boon to women at the company. In a press statement that takes a page straight out of the Second Wave feminist handbook, Apple said: "We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families." And Facebook, under COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, has attempted to cultivate a reputation for being friendly to parents. But while some female employees will undoubtedly benefit from this unexpected perk, the inclusion of egg-freezing coverage in an already male-dominated industry could make tech an even more hostile place for women who don’t want to make the choice between career and family.
Fears are already mounting that the inclusion of egg freezing coverage could create a culture of expectation for women surrounding its use. As Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times points out, “workplaces could be seen as paying women to put off childbearing.” On top of dealing with notorious levels of sexual harassment, then, women in tech might be put under even more pressure to delay childbirth in favor of career advancement if company leadership has provided the means to do so. Given the tech industry’s problem with the retention of female employees, too, it’s hard not to perceive the inclusion of egg freezing coverage as an attempt to squeeze more value out of women before they abandon the industry altogether.
As a 2009 report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology reveals, 56 percent of women in the tech industry leave midway through their careers, “just when the loss of their talent is most costly to companies.” This is over double the rate at which men leave the industry. The female attrition rate is especially alarming in light of the already low percentages of women who manage to find a place at Silicon Valley’s top firms: only 30 percent of Apple’s employees are female, with Facebook clocking in a tick higher at 31 percent. If implicitly endorsing egg freezing is a not-so-subtle attempt to retain female employees, Apple and Facebook certainly stand to benefit from a corporate perspective: they can simultaneously boost their diversity numbers while retaining valuable employees who have already received costly training.
And motherhood is indeed one of the biggest siphons that draws women away from tech. In a recent report for Forbes, Kieran Snyder surveyed 716 women who had left tech behind and found that 484 of them cited motherhood as a reason for leaving. Only 42 of these women had planned on being stay-at-home mothers in the first place. The remainder noted that factors like insufficient maternity leave, inflexible work arrangements, or a bad work environment made their career in tech incongruous with parenting. Of all the women Snyder surveyed, nearly 90 percent of them said they did not plan on returning to the tech industry in the future. The incompatibility between motherhood and tech, it seems, runs far deeper than the timing of pregnancy alone. And the problem is so severe that the women who leave almost never want to come back.
In this context, the decision to cover egg freezing reads as Silicon Valley at its most typical, deploying a hasty technological stopgap for a cultural problem. Granted, Apple and Facebook have made tremendous strides in terms of expanding their parental leave policies over the years. According to Business Insider, Apple and Facebook offer 18 and 17 weeks of total paid maternity leave, respectively, with Facebook also offering $4,000 in so-called “baby cash” to new parents. But nonetheless, it is telling that these top tech firms have opted to splurge on a measure that seems to be targeted at delaying childbirth among female employees before adopting even more measures to accommodate women who have children early in or midway through their careers.
Tech companies still need to focus the staples of maternity policy: extended leave, flexible work arrangements, and a corporate culture in which women—especially mothers—can feel comfortable. Facebook might help employees put their eggs on the rocks but they also made headlines last year for announcing a $120 million dollar housing community that includes a doggy daycare, but not a daycare for actual human children. And while four months of parental leave feels generous in the United States, companies that can afford lavish perks like game rooms, gyms, and candy shops could probably stand to further extend parental leave, even to near-European lengths. By offering employees free egg freezing before mastering the essentials of caring for their female employees, Facebook and Apple are skipping directly to Motherhood 2.0 before working out the bugs in tech culture writ large.
Even worse, these companies could be tacitly encouraging women to make use of a relatively unproven medical technology in the name of their careers. Although The American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) no longer labels egg-freezing as an “experimental” technique, they have not yet endorsed the “widespread use of egg freezing for elective use,” because of concerns for its “safety, efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and potential emotional risks.” As a report from an ASRM committee notes, “Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing.” Some female employees will certainly benefit from egg freezing as a last resort in extending fertility, but if the measure comes to be understood within corporate culture as a means to defer pregnancy in order to work longer, many of them could have their future hopes of family dashed by an as yet uncertain medical technique.
While the announcement of egg freezing coverage will make for flashy PR for Apple and Facebook, it’s unlikely that a large number of women will want to take advantage of the option given its complexity and efficacy. As the Telegraph reported earlier this year, a European study found that while nine out of 10 women hypothetically support egg-freezing for social reasons like career advancement, only one in five would do so themselves. Another US-based study in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that, although 53 percent of women who have frozen their eggs find the experience to be “empowering,” 36 percent found it to be “anxiety producing” as well.
And the difficulties of egg freezing and subsequent in vitro fertilization (IVF) will also discourage most women from using the coverage as anything other than an added layer of assurance. According to CNN, the numbers of women who use IVF continue to climb steadily but IVF treatments still only account for 1.5 percent of babies born in the U.S. Apple can rhetorically position egg freezing as a means for empowering “women at Apple” but the reality is that very few women will see egg freezing and IVF as a viable option for childbirth unless they face reduced fertility. IVF treatments, too, require mothers to do additional labor within corporate cultures that already penalize motherhood. As a Hewlett-Packard employee who is leaving the company to better care for her child indicated in an e-mail interview, “If my employer provided [egg freezing], I don’t think I would have availed of it… I’m not sure I have the patience to go through IVF when I have the option to do it traditionally.”
For female Apple and Facebook employees who suffer from reduced fertility, $20,000 for egg freezing could literally be lifesaving, albeit preemptively. But given Silicon Valley’s sexist culture, women are right to be wary of a measure that seems designed to delay their exit from companies who might rather keep them a few extra years than invest in their long-term success. The message couldn’t be clearer: women can have it all, as long as they have it in order.