Egg-Freezing Benefit from Facebook, Apple Raises Workplace Questions


  
    Does paying to freeze eggs suggest motherhood and career are incompatible?
  
 

By Dana Wilkie Oct 16, 2014
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With the decision by Apple and Facebook to offer company insurance coverage to women who want to freeze their eggs come questions about the message this may send to women who pursue careers at prominent tech companies.

For instance: Is an employer paying to freeze a woman’s eggs a way to suggest motherhood and a demanding job are incompatible?

Or: Might the existence of an egg-freezing benefit pressure women to delay having children in favor of their careers?

“It’s complicated,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “Egg freezing is very expensive, so this is a nice benefit. You want this option for people, but you don’t want to send the message that ‘we don’t expect you to be able to manage’ ” both parenting and a career.

Apple and Facebook are among the first companies to offer the option to freeze eggs as part of their benefits. Those who support the practice say it gives women more control over their work and personal lives, allowing them to delay motherhood until it's the right time for them or their careers.

“My sense is that the companies are sincere about trying to provide women more control over when they choose to start families,” said David G. Allen, distinguished professor of management at the University of Memphis’ Fogelman College of Business and Economics. “However, I would be hesitant to frame it in terms of a tool for leveling compensation and career progression for women. That could send the signal that the company believes women need to be strategic about managing when they have children or it will hurt their career, but men should feel free to have children whenever they want without worrying about it. It might make sense to offer the benefit to women and spouses to send the message that the goal is to help all employees manage their family planning, not just encouraging women to put off having children.”

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Facebook started providing the benefit, which applies to employees and their spouses or domestic partners, in January 2014. The social network offers as much as $20,000 in expenses for egg freezing and related procedures, such as surrogacy.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., said it will offer similar coverage in 2015. In a statement, an Apple spokeswoman said that the company wants to “empower women … to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.”

Recruiting and retaining women has been a challenge for technology companies.

A startling number of women working in science, engineering and technology (SET)—the same industries that grade schools are urging girls to pursue—are considering leaving those fields because of gender bias, according to a February 2014 report by the Center for Talent Innovation, a global think tank.

The think tank discovered that, despite high ambition and passion for their work, women in SET fields in the U.S., Brazil, China and India are “languishing in the middle rungs of their organizations and, as a result, are much more likely than men to report that they plan to leave the industry within the year.”

In fact, 32 percent of female SET employees in the U.S., 22 percent in Brazil, 30 percent in China and 20 percent in India were considering leaving their fields within a year, according to the report. Among SET senior leaders, 31 percent of women in the U.S., 22 percent in Brazil, 51 percent in China and 57 percent in India reported that a woman would never get a top position at their company, no matter how capable or high-performing.

“I think it’s great that the companies are offering [egg-freezing benefits], because clearly some women want it,” said Joan C. Williams, chairwoman and director of the UC Hastings Foundation’s Center for WorkLife Law. “The best case scenario is that the company sends a message that if you want to use this benefit, that’s great, and if you don’t, there’s a place for you at the company as a mother. There is at this point massively documented discrimination against [working] mothers. The solution is not to eliminate this benefit, but to eliminate discrimination.”

The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2014 Employee Benefits survey reveals that 26 percent of U.S. organizations offer in vitro fertilization coverage to their employees and 29 percent of U.S. organizations offer employees infertility treatment coverage other than in vitro. However, the number of companies offering medical coverage for egg freezing has not been studied.

Williams said she doesn’t expect many companies to follow Facebook’s and Apple’s leads. “It’s extraordinarily expensive,” she said.

“This is part of Silicon Valley creating organizational cultures that provide huge numbers of very expensive benefits—many of them designed to keep people at work longer,” she said. “This is definitely part of the picture of free dinners and dry-cleaning at the office.”

Facebook’s and Apple’s media offices didn’t respond to requests for comment about criticism aired on social media sites that the benefit could be viewed as a substitute for creating a workplace where motherhood is compatible with a demanding career.

However, Facebook spokeswoman Genevieve Grdina told Bloomberg News that the company offers other benefits to help workers transition to parenthood when they’re ready, including nursing rooms, subsidized day care, four months of paid parental leave and $4,000 in “baby cash.”

Allen said it’s important that a company’s benefits demonstrate as much support for working parents as for those who want to delay having families.

“This is a matter of communication and organizational culture,” he said. “If an organization already has a culture that is supportive of employees and supportive of family-friendly benefits, employees would be more likely to view it as positive and as just one more way the company is trying to be supportive. On the other hand, if employees tend to view the company as prioritizing the bottom line over employee well-being, especially if women view the company as not very supportive of work/family balance issues, then I think the message could be received more negatively.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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