Companies are offering egg freezing to their female employees which may seem benign, but it sends some messages that cannot be ignored. Employers would also be wise to think of the legalities before committing to this scheme.
Children come up a lot when we talk about women at work – the logistics of bearing and raising children, the pressures placed on women to be present in their children’s formative years, and the ticking biological clock that don’t exist for men. These issues are often discussed in the same breath as the wage gap, and the lack of women in upper management.
In response, some Australian companies, including NewsCorp, are following the lead of Apple, Google, and Facebook and giving female employees the opportunity to freeze their eggs so they can delay having kids (the procedure is called oocyte cryopreservation). While the initiative has been praised by some, others remain concerned that it could actually limit women’s options and because it fails to address systemic problems within the structure of the workplace.
What is it exactly?
The idea of corporate egg freezing began at Facebook in 2014, just two years after the “experimental” label was removed by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, effectively allowing women to freeze their eggs with the intention of using them later for IVF. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was inspired to introduce the policy after hearing about an employee undergoing chemotherapy who couldn’t afford the expensive procedure.
“I talked about it with our head of HR, and said, ‘God we should cover this,’” she told Bloomberg in 2015. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Why would we only cover this for women with cancer, why wouldn’t we cover this more broadly?’”
The policy was quickly picked up by other tech companies including Facebook and Apple, and CEO of the Virgin Group Richard Branson announced that he wanted to “steal” it.
Does it give parents more options?
The initiative seems to solve many of the challenges that women face at work.
Wired references the 2000 census which revealed that the more hours men work, the more children they are likely to have. Predictably, the opposite is true for women. There are a few reasons for this. One is that the time women need to have children, their late twenties and early thirties, coincides with an important and transformative time in their careers. Men, on the other hand, don’t have the same biological time pressures.
There’s also implicit societal pressure placed on women to spend quality time with their children, or face the judgement of others. In this light, the option to delay having children means that women can comfortably work the long hours that many careers demand, while comfortably knowing that they can start a family at a time when work pressures are less intense.
It’s also an exciting option for women who couldn’t previously shoulder the financial and logistical burden of “leaning in”, which necessarily requires extensive childcare, and usually a two salary household with a partner who is actively involved in parenting the children.
With companies offering to cover the costs of the expensive procedure (Facebook will put up a maximum of USD 20,000 for its US employees) women across a variety of income levels and relationship statuses seemingly have far greater autonomy. This includes single parents and LGBTQ women for whom natural conception is not always an option. It affords them the opportunity to have children at a time when they are more financially secure, and are established enough in their careers to negotiate flexible hours.
A cause for concern?
According to McDonald Murholme principal lawyer Andrew Jewell, the motivation behind the new policy should not be taken at face value.
“By opening the door for more women to consider this treatment, companies aim to retain more female employees in the workplace and reduce the amount of absence brought on by maternity leave. However, says Jewell, females could feel pressured to stay in the workforce fearing that starting a family will be met with disapproval and discrimination.
“Pregnant woman are well protected under anti-discrimination laws, and maternity leave is a workplace right, so any adverse action that’s linked to either would be a breach of the Fair Work Act 2009.
“This includes demotion or dismissal but could also include a decision not to promote or not to provide discretionary benefits such as bonuses.
Jewell says if an employer is looking to implement this policy, it would need to be extremely careful to ensure that women enter on a volunteer- basis only and there is no discrimination associated with women choosing to have families.
“The concept of an employer seeking to involve itself in private family matters is a problematic one and employers should tread carefully when meddling with issues that could have huge ramifications on people’s life.
Raise awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias and its impact on decision making in the workplace, with AHRI’s Managing unconscious bias training toolkit.