In this first of many Feminist Friday posts here at This Week In Tomorrow, blogger extraordinaire and newest contributor Elle Irise discusses the latest “perk” for female employees.
Two of the biggest names in Silicon Valley, Facebook and Apple, recently announced that they would begin paying for egg freezing procedures for their employees.
My first thought upon hearing this news was “Oh awesome, companies are starting to support more fertility options!”
My second thought was “Oh God, this is going to turn into an anti-family capitalist wasteland fast.”
You see, there are some very simple, and very non-altruistic, reasons that companies, and specifically tech companies, are jumping on a bandwagon to support egg freezing. The tech industry has been facing increasing scrutiny and criticism for the frankly pathetic numbers of women employees at all levels of the industry, and there has been a subsequent push for higher hiring rates of female employees. The tech field wants to woo women, but there’s a little “problem” with women employees. It’s a “problem” that faces all employers, but seems like a particularly onerous burden for the tech industry, which pushes 24/7 connectivity and availability, 80 hour work weeks, and the image of a wild-eyed, caffeinated young genius setting aside all else in pursuit of a goal.
Women can get pregnant.
And the very years that we are told are our most productive in terms of work—establishing ourselves in our field, working our way up the corporate ladder, and pulling all-nighters for a project while our bodies are still young enough to take it—happen to also be our most productive in terms of… well, reproduction. The average age for a woman in the US to have her first child is 25.4. The average age for a woman to marry is 27. The average age of a Facebook employee is 28. So tech businesses thrive around employees at pretty much the precise age that women are likely to begin having children, or are likely to have recently had children. Which, from the perspective of the companies, is a problem. Women who become pregnant or who have children are, in a company’s view, productivity killers. They demand things like “maternity leave” and “reasonable schedules.”
For the company, there are only two possible ways that a woman’s fertility is going to work in the business’ favor. First, if she’s a workaholic willing to make both her job and her family her first priority (such as Sheryl Sandberg, who famously proposed that women avoid being punished for motherhood by closing the “ambition gap,” and push for high-level jobs by being superhuman and managing to continue full time work at the same time as motherhood). Second, if the woman is convinced to put off her child bearing and rearing for as long as possible (and hopefully forever).
Apple and Facebook are taking part in a long con, gambling on the hope that a mixture of corporate culture pressure, turnover rates, and plain old tiredness will mean that women will put off having a child until they are potentially already less productive, or have given a good decade or so of concentrated work, or are with another company. Or, ideally, they will hit the ripe old age of 45 and finally decide that motherhood isn’t for them, or that they have attained a position that makes motherhood impossible.
Now, I’m not saying these egg freezing offers are all bad. Women were facing the restrictive work/home life binary long before Facebook and Apple made these offers, and at the very least, this technology gives women a bit of assistance and flexibility as they try to come to a solution that works for them. And while the procedure itself can be risky, and is frankly not intended for instances of outside of medical necessity many women see it as a better option than gambling on the decreased fertility and increased risk of genetic problems or pregnancy complications that come with attempting to have a child with eggs that have aged along with the mother. However, to me egg freezing doesn’t feel like a solution so much as a capitulation to the adage “you can’t have it all.” Egg freezing “solves” the work/life balance by privileging work, and pushing “life” into a far future category that may or may not happen.
In providing egg freezing, companies neatly sidestep the kinds of institutional change that would actually make it possible to “have it all”—increased parental leave, flexible work schedules, subsidized child care, or even an acknowledgment that constant availability and 60+ hour work weeks are a ridiculous thing to ask of any employee, whether or not they are a mother.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not being sarcastic on the Internet she studies gender in popular culture.