Lots of publicity for Apple’s announcement last week that, following in the wake of Facebook, it would be offering its US-based female employees a financial contribution towards the cost of freezing eggs.
If Apple subscribes to the maxim that all publicity is good publicity then this was a triumph; a ferocious on-line discussion has ensued, although much of it is critical.
On one level this benefit, whilst novel, is to be applauded. Against the backdrop of a 70% male workforce it is hard to quibble with Apple’s stated aim of attracting and retaining female talent. Whilst some employers sit on their hands and hope that problem will magically cure itself, Apple has at least engaged with the issue and offered a more creative than average incentive to join its ranks and stay there, alongside a number of other benefits and partly apparently in response to employee requests.
And if the research is accurate then there is no denying that Gen Y have questions of family planning and work/life balance very much in the forefront of their minds. Hardly surprising given the incessant press coverage of fertility challenges and exhortations to “have a family before it’s too late”.
If women can be given a little more control over their fertility then, in theory at least, the work v family choice becomes a little less binary and the timings more flexible. It’s easier to follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “lean in” when the ticking fertility clock is a little less deafening - and anyone who has encountered infertility (their own or that of a friend, colleague or family member) will know exactly how traumatic that can be. Plus this isn’t just a lifestyle choice debate; egg freezing can be for a host of reasons completely unrelated to work such as not having found a life partner yet or a desire to have children following certain forms of cancer treatment.
The other way of looking at this of course is somewhat more questionable and it’s hard to escape the feeling that the motivation behind this sort of benefit is not entirely philanthropic. An Apple spokesman said “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” so this is obviously as much about work as life and, whilst presented in terms of giving people a choice, the hope presumably is that women will feel emboldened to put off the baby making business a little longer. Is the sub-text that if you want to succeed here then hold fire on baby making? I’m absolutely sure Apple and Facebook would vehemently deny that and personally I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories, although anything which encourages employees to delay having children, even if that is an unintentional consequence and well-intentioned, does seem very retrogressive.
And then what? For starters, anyone who thinks IVF is an easy option probably hasn’t discussed it much with someone who has been through it. Then there are the odds on a successful outcome. According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the chilling statistics (no pun intended) are that “up to December 2012 around 18,000 eggs have been stored in the UK for patients’ own use. Around 580 embryos from stored eggs have been created. These embryos were transferred to women in around 160 cycles, which resulted in around 20 live births”. New fast freeze methods are apparently improving the odds, but that’s still not my idea of a fantastic insurance policy – and if women are being led in to a false sense of security then that must be a matter of concern.
Above all though what really strikes me about this debate is that, no matter how wide-ranging the spread of employment law becomes, the back-to-basics reality that people have (or are sometimes unable to have) babies is still perhaps the biggest issue with which employers and employees grapple. For something so fundamental to human existence it still seems that, in the workplace, it’s an issue that hasn’t ever been fully resolved and that egg freezing isn’t really the solution.