Facebook and Apple recently announced that they will soon cover the cost of freezing eggs for their female employees, which can certainly act as a kind of “fertility insurance” for women who want to stop the hands of their ticking biological clocks. However, this perk also raises serious questions about whether the balance between career and family life is compatible. Reproductive options for women are definitely good, but it looks like we’ve gotten to the point where rather than demand progressive policies that let women have families and careers at the same time, we ask them to put their eggs on ice.
Overall, the United States does an abysmal job of taking care of working families. From the lack of paid family leave to inflexible work schedules and exorbitant daycare costs, balancing professional life and parenthood can feel like an uphill battle. Our employers are part of the problem, but as Facebook and Apple have shown, they don’t have to be. Nevertheless, while these two companies provide excellent work-family policies, they pale in comparison to what’s common in much of the world.
It is understandable how having the chance to freeze fertility would be an appealing perk. While men’s reproductive capacity lasts well into old age, for women, timing is everything. Although there are conflicting perspectives on how long is too long to wait to have a baby, statistics show that women are waiting later than ever before to start families. While freezing eggs has certainly become more common, it’s still not a guaranteed at a shot at having a baby. And the American Society of Reproductive Medicine does not endorse the practice. According to a 2012 report, “Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing. Patients who wish to pursue this technology should be carefully counseled.”
But whether or not women defer pregnancy, we’re still in a bind. The prime years for building a career coincide precisely with medically recommended time frame for natural conception. Women are expected to pack career advancement and family into a small window of time: From their late 20s into their early 40s we’re traditionally supposed to find partners, children, and have time to climb to the top of our professional game.
Making all of this more discouraging is the reality that having a family at all can negatively impact a woman’s career. Taking time off from work to have and care for a baby decreases a women’s lifetime earning potential. (The same dynamic does not apply to men, however—men actually benefit professionally from having children even as women are penalized.) Given the reality of these dynamics, you can see why freezing your eggs can be an attractive option.
Some women feel like they have no choice but to freeze their eggs. As reported by Bloomberg Buisnessweek, a 2013 NYU study of women who had frozen their eggs found that 19 percent of them may have had a child earlier if their workplace had been more flexible. So while more options is indeed a good thing, we also have to ask what’s at the root of having to make these choices.
Tech companies like Facebook and Apple are seen as pioneers in providing family friendly policies to their employees. Recently Mother Jones wondered if Facebook’s family leave policies could serve as a model for the rest of America’s employers. Out of the eight tech giants—from Google to Microsoft—Facebook gives its employees some of the most generous leave policies by offering new moms and dads four months paid time off and a cash “baby bonus.” Apple recently announced that it will offer more of paid time off for new parents.
These powerful companies’ policy shifts could indeed have a broader impact on family-work practices. But sadly the bar in the United States is so low that it’s the rare employer that offers anything as basic as paid maternity leave. In fact, according to a recent Washington Post article, the United States ranks last in a number of family policy measures. The United States is in the tiny club of countries that does not mandate paid maternity leave, alongside Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
In contrast, all other industrialized nations recognize the importance of family friendly work policies. Germany offers 98 days of maternity leave at full pay and France offers 112 days of maternity and paternity leave at full pay. But it’s not just Europe that offers these kinds of benefits; Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Indonesia all guarantee paid time off for new mothers.
Given the dismal state of federal law some state lawmakers have stepped up to address the issue. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island all offer paid family leave, funded through employee payroll taxes.
But there’s a danger in letting CEOs rather than federal law dictate the implementation of comprehensive family policies. Corporate CEOs are not exactly known for being in touch with the struggles of the average employee, they can change policy on a whim. In one telling example from last year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer revoked flexible work schedules for her employees, and then proceeded to build a nursery next her office so she could work with her newborn nearby.
It is certainly heartening to see companies like Apple and Facebook try to push the envelope in making work and life balance more feasible for their employees. Offering to cover the enormous cost of freezing eggs is certainly one way to do that. But it would be even more revolutionary to see them truly model their policies after countries with family and work life laws that far surpass the United States. That way maybe women and men can actually have it all, rather than having to put family life on hold.
Photo via euthman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)