· Features

Egg freezing sends out wrong message on gender equality

Businesses that are serious about promoting gender equality should focus efforts on providing agile workforces and supportive managers rather than offering gimmicks that place the onus on women to find a solution.

This week, technology giants Apple and Facebook announced plans to fund egg-freezing treatments for female staff up to the tune of $20,000. The aim of this work benefit is to allow women to delay childbearing in favour of pursuing their careers.

On the surface, such a benefit appears to be a logical extension of a growing number of IVF policies that many companies now offer. It potentially allows women more flexibility over when they should have children and could be a response to employee demand.

But trying to slow down the biological clock in order to fast track a career sends a dangerous message ­– 'put your fertility on ice and focus on your career because we’re not willing to accommodate your family responsibilities'.

In a sector that is notoriously unbalanced – Apple’s workforce was 70% male, while Facebook’s is 69% – placing the onus on women to delay having children seems an odd way to encourage more women to enter the sector, says Working Families CEO Sarah Jackson.

“Their (Apple and Facebook) gender stats are not good, much like the whole IT industry,” she says. “They need to be finding ways of valuing women rather than appearing to say ‘there’s a problem with you, which is your fertility’ – let’s find ways of minimising that impact.”

Opportunity Now director Kathryn Nawrockyi describes the policy as “creepy” and says it sends a clear message that “women’s biology isn’t compatible with the way we structure work, our businesses”.

“It’s not addressing the real issue, we need to tackle the systemic problems that are failing women in their careers,” she says. “We need to look at better agile working. If we have the money to invest why aren’t we supporting people with greater childcare benefits?

“My discomfort is also the idea that employers can have this stranglehold on women, this bind that keeps them in their roles for longer with potentially really harmful consequences.”

Another problem with the policy is the potential for it to mark down those who do not place their career ahead of kids. For example, will working mums be considered less committed than those who put their families on hold?

Then there are the health implications. It is well known that having children beyond the age of 40 brings about health risks.

And cryopreservation technology is by no means guaranteed to work. According to a recent study pregnancy rates from frozen eggs ranged from 36% to 61%. While an online fertility calculator found that a woman who freezes 15 eggs at age 32 has about a 28% chance of becoming pregnant by using them.

It may well be the case that Apple and Facebook are tackling the underlying issues that lead to gender inequality in other ways and this new initiative is just an additional tool. But policies that ask women to bend to a company’s demands will ultimately prove less effective than those that provide flexibility in a system holding women back.

Let’s be clear – gender equality is an economic issue. The onus should be on business culture to reform, not working mums.