Tech chiefs offer to freeze female workers' eggs

15 October 2014 -


Apple and Facebook bosses pledge to foot the bill for cold storage, if staffers want to delay parenthood in favour of their careers

Matt Packer

Technology giants Apple and Facebook have pledged to settle up for the freezing of female workers’ eggs, if those employees would rather push on with their careers before becoming parents. Apple will roll out the scheme for US staffers from January next year.

In a statement about the scheme, the company said: “Apple cares deeply about our employees and their families, and we are always looking at new ways our health programmes can meet their needs.

“We continue to expand our benefits for women, with a new extended maternity leave policy, along with cyropreservation and egg storage as part of our extensive support for infertility treatments … 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.”

Apple’s commitment follows the recent hiring of Denise Young Smith as HR chief, and comes just a fortnight after the dispatch of a staff-wide memo in which she informed the firm of a host of new benefits. Those perks include reimbursements for training courses, matching of charitable donations, subsidised refinancing of student loans, and the aforementioned longer parental leave: a “plethora of programmes”, Young Smith explained, that were required to tackle the issue of having four generations of workers in the company at the same time.

Facebook, meanwhile, has unveiled a similar eggs scheme, saying that it fits in with “a host of other fertility services [we offer] for male and female employees”.

Both companies have said that they will cover egg-freezing costs up to $20,000. A typical US patient would pay between $7,000 and $12,000 for cryo storage, with fertility drug costs on top of that.

However, the scope for unintended, negative consequences to stem from these sorts of schemes had already occurred to some business experts – in some cases, quite some time ago. In April last year, for example, Glenn Cohen – head of Harvard Law School’s Centre for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics – wrote in a blog on the potential effects of staff egg-freezing: “I am curious about the PR implications … Would [female workers] welcome this option knowing that they can work hard early on and still reproduce, if they so desire, later on? Or would they take this as a signal that the firm thinks that working there … and pregnancy are incompatible?

“Would this option help remedy the deficits faced by women who want to have children … or would it in fact exacerbate discrimination against women who do choose to have families early on, with the thinking being “she could have waited.” More generally, would this be a blow for or against gender equity?”

In a statement today, Professor James Hayton of Warwick Business School suggested that such schemes could open new paths to gender diversity. “Of all industries,” he said, “the tech sector suffers particularly severely from a gender imbalance. Women make up 57% of the US workforce in professional and related occupations, but only 26% of professionals in the computer and information field. Male domination in the education fields of engineering and computer science – coupled with a masculine business culture – has compounded the challenge: tech firms wish to do a better job of appealing to the women who make up more than half the workforce. It is not surprising that the most innovative of these firms are seeking ways that will directly help them attract talented women.”

However, like Cohen, Hayton spotted a series of potential drawbacks. “While many will praise Facebook and Apple for their forward thinking,” he warned, “they are bound to face criticism from a number of quarters. Firstly, and perhaps more fundamentally, critics may note that while perks such as these are very impressive and innovative, broader pay equity might be an even stronger signal of the importance of women in the workforce. Secondly, especially in the United States, there might be a strong reaction from religious groups with a strong concern over the tricky domain of bioethics and reproductive choices. Thirdly, observers may be squeamish about the degree of paternalism when employers show concern for their employees’ reproductive choices. Ultimately however, these policies are innovative and forward thinking, and likely to benefit the employers creative enough, and bold enough, to offer them.”

Hayton’s view of the financial coverage available in the schemes, meanwhile, was uniformly positive. “Egg freezing,” he said, “is one in a long line of innovative HR practices intended to be attractive to educated people with many employment options, seeking a focus on flexibility in the difficult balance between work and life. The costs appear to be moderate, although not trivial, at about 20% of average annual salary at these firms. The benefits, in terms of attracting and retaining employees, can be expected to significantly outweigh the costs. The positive PR will pay for itself by signalling these employers’ values – with respect to women’s control over this important life choice – to prospective female employees.”

For more on these issues, download the white paper The Power of Role Models – part of CMI’s ongoing drive to promote gender equality.

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