Silicon Ovaries


It's only apt that Silicon Valley's new plan to tackle gender imbalance involves cutting-edge technology, a dose of futurism and flash-freezing things in sub-zero temperatures:

Apple and Facebook are offering to freeze eggs for female employees in an effort to attract more women on to their staff, according to US media reports.

Apple, the world’s most valuable brand, said it would offer the perk to US-based staff from January. “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,” the company said in a statement to ABC News. “We continue to expand our benefits for women, with a new extended maternity leave policy, along with cryopreservation and egg storage as part of our extensive support for infertility treatments.”

Facebook offers up to $20,000 (£13,000) for egg freezing for female employees. The company also offers adoption and surrogacy assistance and “a host of other fertility services for male and female employees”, the company said. (The Guardian)

Even though the schemes are unlikely to have huge take up, it's an idea with a commendable sentiment behind it. The tech world is notorious for its lack of female representation and lingering sexism, and women make up only 30% of Apple and Facebook's workforce. Their support of 'cryopreservation' will benefit both the firms and their employees.

It's damn inconvenient that the years in which women are able to best forge a career are often also those of peak fertility. This not only creates huge opportunity costs when selecting a career/family/income combination, but restricts the pool of talent available to employees. Being able to keep young eggs on ice (and being aided financially to do so) expands the range of work/child  options women have, and makes some of the tradeoffs a little less binary and severe.

 There are a number of ways we try to reduce the 'costs' of raising a child, from statutory maternity pay and free childcare to paternity leave and work crèche schemes. All of these actions shift part of the cost of child-rearing from one figure (usually the mother) to another actor, such as the state, an employer or a partner. It's usually a good thing that these costs are shared out amongst others, but it would be even better if the costs were simply reduced. Something like fertility preservation does that— it uses technology to augment the options available to women and reduces the opportunity cost of pursuing a career— without the need for state intervention, relying on a partner, or for social behaviours and cultural shifts to occur. If a woman voluntarily choses to use her 29-year old self's eggs at the age of 39, everybody wins.

Of course, Apple and Facebook have chosen to foot the bill here, and no firm should be forced to provide such procedures for their employees. But these leading companies clearly think that $20k is a small price to pay to attract and retain top female talent. Certainly, a firm which signals that it is prepared to help employees overcome obstacles to their life choices (amongst many other generous perks) will be a draw for many, and can help women to achieve the success they've always been capable of.

Naturally, there will be those who recoil in horror at the idea of Facebook laying a frosty, calculating hand on their employees' ovaries. Some consider it a neanderthalic and clumsy way of improving women's standing in the workplace, whilst others worry that supporting such technology gives a strong and unpleasant message to women that forging a career whilst raising a family is a faux pas.

Cryopreservation's hardly going to become a mainstream phenomenon any time soon, and for now is only really an option for a small number of women. Were employers to start actively encouraging the treatment or making employment decisions based upon it, then we would need to have a serious conversation about the way in which it was used. Egg freezing's also in no way a panacea. If Silicon Valley really wants to boost the women in its ranks, there's plenty of other things which they can do, like offer more schemes for current parents, and foster a more female-friendly everyday culture.

Ultimately, egg storage is another medical innovation which — like the pill— affords women a greater range of life choices. And far from establishing expectations of what a female employee should do with her womb, Facebook and Apple's support of the proceedure indicates a commitment to heterogeneity and flexibility. It is smart of them to support such a range of lifestyle and career choices, and with luck initiatives like these will help to enrich the lives and bolster the careers of the women who've chosen to work there.