Frozen II: The Tech Industry's Eggs

article | October 16, 2014

  • New America

If you have children under the age of ten (or know anyone who does), you know at least one person who’s bought an Elsa costume for Halloween. But what if you’re a person for whom the word “frozen” doesn’t trigger lyrics but a melody of anxiety in your head about when or whether you’ll ever have kids?

Apple and Facebook attempted to address that anxiety this week, when they announced that they would pay for female employees to freeze their eggs. We asked a group of experts to react to the news: Is this is an important step to narrowing the tech industry’s big gender gap and empowering its female employees? Or is it a misguided policy that could be used to pressure women into making an unsafe and uninformed decision?

Liza Mundy, Director of the Breadwinning and Caregiving Program:

 Earlier this year the big tech firms issued (in some cases grudgingly) reports on the diversity and gender makeup of their workforces. When it comes to the inclusion of women they did not do well. Since then, some strategizing has clearly taken place about new ways to attract and retain women workers. I'd draw a direct line between those reports and policies like the coverage of egg freezing.

Among other things, this is a high-profile effort to attract female hires. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but I do worry that company-paid egg freezing contributes to an environment in which women are subtly expected to delay starting families. I'd put it in the category of other Silicon Valley perks, like ping-pong tables and fancy cafeteria food, that encourage workers to stay on the job. I was recently told by one high-up HR person at a major tech firm that they have trouble persuading men to take the paternity leave these companies famously offer, suggesting that the work environment is one where employees are reluctant to leave their desks. The egg-freezing perk I think may exacerbate a culture where people prioritize work over the messier, but deeply important, parts of life.

‪I'm all for choice and for giving women the same options men have, including, I guess, having kids at 45 and 50 and 60. But I also worry about romanticizing technology and the notion that there is a technical fix for everything. Egg freezing is not an advanced technology. It's getting better, but there are not all that many success stories yet.

When it comes to attracting female employees, there are more important fixes. I'd rather read a headline that says, "Facebook and Apple achieve gender parity on their corporate boards." Or "Facebook and Apple unveil massive, luxurious, amply staffed, ubiquitous, state-of-the-art on-site day care, setting off a national trend." But I guess you have to start somewhere.

Stephanie Stark, author of “Egg Freezing for Every Woman”:

Facebook and Apple’s decision to pay for women to freeze their eggs and is an important tool in narrowing the tech gender gap.  Currently, women who want to be mothers may feel obliged to take advantage of a relatively narrow fertility window, particularly in comparison to men, by temporarily stepping out of their current career path to have children.   Egg freezing gives women more options for both their career and reproductive choices.

Apple and Facebook are very forward-thinking and have created a great benefit for women here.  I really believe this is going to generate some additional interest from women job applicants who want the option of freezing eggs and appreciate an employer who gets that it’s in everyone’s best interest to allow for coverage of this potentially life-changing technology.

Jeff Gillis, former Google employee, publisher imprint of *"Egg Freezing For Every Woman" by Stephanie Stark ( her contribution is above):

Every woman Stephanie interviewed for her book who had undergone the procedure felt empowered and would recommend it to women who were in similar situations. Egg freezing seems to be as life-changing an option as birth control, and as empowering as any tenet in Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In." All of them say it gave them more options. And each of the women had different reasons for undergoing the procedure. Perhaps they weren't in a relationship and were approaching their late 30s. Perhaps they were involved in their career, or had just gone through a break up. There are many reasons. By offering to cover costs, Facebook and Apple aren't encouraging their female employees to freeze their eggs. Rather they're being considerate about one of the most important aspects of a woman's life - the reproductive aspect - and providing their employees with options.

Having the support of an employer when it comes to egg freezing can increase the career-span and contribution potential of an invested female employee - a plus for both the company and the employee. At the end of the day, employees are the lifeblood of a company. Making them happy attracts more good employees and makes the current ones happier and better performing. It's a virtuous cycle. This perk falls in that area. Egg freezing gives women more control in life and allows them more time to excel in a career they’re passionate about. In short, it just gives them options.

Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society:

Egg freezing is an option all right – but one that is risky, invasive, and highly unreliable.

Egg retrieval itself is neither simple nor safe. It involves weeks of injections with powerful hormones, some used off-label, to hyper-stimulate your ovaries. Nausea, bloating and discomfort are common; more serious reactions requiring hospitalization – including severe pain, intra-abdominal bleeding, and ovarian torsion – occur at low but, for an elective procedure, not negligible rates. Deaths, fortunately rare, have been reported.

Some studies suggest that egg retrieval is associated with higher rates of infertility and cancer. But shockingly, though the fertility industry has harvested eggs for decades, experts acknowledge that there haven’t been enough follow-up studies to ascertain the extent of these longer-term risks.

Nor are frozen eggs necessarily benign for the children who result from them. The chemicals used in the freezing process are toxic, but no one knows whether they’re absorbed by embryos, or whether that might cause problems as children get older.

And of course using those frozen eggs means trying to get pregnant via IVF, with its attendant higher rates of multiple pregnancies, cesarean sections, stillbirths and fetal anomalies.

What about the reliability of egg freezing? If your plan is work now and live later, will you be able to thaw your eggs and take home a baby? According to a 2013 meta-analysis, the new improved flash-freezing method fails 70% of the time among women age 30 and close to 90% of the time in women age 40.

Even the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, whose members have a financial interest in promoting expensive new fertility procedures, explicitly discourages egg freezing for elective, non-medical reasons.

Women working for companies that offer egg freezing may experience this “benefit” as pressure more than empowerment. And egg freezing is at best – for a lucky minority – an individualized high-tech fix for what is fundamentally a social problem that should be addressed by family-friendly workplace policies. Sadly, Facebook and Apple are endorsing a technique that puts their employees’ health at risk, and that could actually make it more difficult for them to have children.

Brigid Schulte, 2012 New America Fellow, Washington Post staff writer:

The news from Apple and Facebook was met with a swarm of media coverage buzzing that this was the latest in the “perks arms race” to attract talent. Yet, to me, the satirical Onion had perhaps the best perspective: “I’ll be proud to show my children the browser plug-in that’s the reason they’re 9 and not 14,” said one fictional programmer.

High-tech firms, with the kind of high-paying jobs that will only become more in demand as the world turns ever-more digital, are notoriously white and Asian male, according to their own internal audits. The culture values those who work such long hours that they sometimes sleep under their desks. Yahoo employees once sported T-shirts, “90 Hours a week and Loving it.”

That “hero mindset,” according to a report by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, is the result of bad management by boy geniuses with somewhat awkward social skills. It is also “sending the message that those who have family responsibilities need not apply.” As do the new policies that support egg freezing.

This message seems to me to be pretty loud and clear: Instead of analyzing work flow, what makes for excellent work, and their own work cultures, these high-tech companies are acquiescing to the exhausting, unsustainable status quo. They won’t, can’t or don’t want to change the way they expect people to work in technology. So you, dearie, must use said technology to change the way you expect to live. Offering to freeze women’s eggs may be a nod to current reality, but it’s truly a shame if that’s really the best Silicon Valley has to offer women and men who want to both work in this fascinating, rewarding and highly compensated field, and have families while they still can.

(The above is an excerpt from a piece Schulte wrote for the Washington Post). 


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