THE idea that two of the world’s most successful companies believe the way to help women break through the glass ceiling is to contribute to the cost of freezing their eggs is baffling until you realise that Apple and Facebook are dominated by socially challenged white twenty-somethings whose experience of the opposite sex is mostly virtual.
How else can you explain the crassness of this “perk” which they seem to expect women to leap on as if they’ve been offered tickets to see Kate Bush as opposed to the chance of postponing motherhood until their ovaries have shrivelled up and it better suits their employers? You can picture the high-fiving and backslapping that greeted that light-bulb moment. Someone had a vision of a brave, new world in which the whole messy, disruptive business of reproduction could be by-passed. Frozen eggs today, the Department of Hatcheries and Conditioning tomorrow. After all, what woman doesn’t fantasise about being mistaken for her children’s granny at the school gates? And if the offer of subsidised oocyte cyropreservation isn’t enough to address the Silicon Valley firms’ gender imbalance (70:30 at Facebook, 80:20 in Apple’s tech service), they could always throw in a free trip to Dignitas for female workers whose promotion prospects are jeopardised by the demands of caring for elderly relatives.
I mean seriously, dudes. It’s great you realise you have a problem. It’s even better that you want to do something about it. And you’re right: the fact a woman’s fertility begins to decline at the very point her career is taking off is a contributing factor – something Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has highlighted. A few years ago, a report by InterExec, the agency for senior executives, showed 53 per cent of head-hunters recruiting for positions with a salary of more than £150,000 believed women must give up on any thoughts of a career break if they want to be considered for the highest paid positions. But the way to resolve the conflict between women’s professional aspirations and their biological clock isn’t to start tinkering around with their innards, it’s to tackle the culture and employment practices which currently make child-rearing incompatible with reaching the top.
None of this is to underestimate the value of advances in reproductive technology. It took the contraceptive pill and the liberalisation of abortion laws to free women from the kitchen sink. Techniques such as artificial insemination, embryo transfer and IVF brought hope to the infertile and opened up alternatives to the traditional family set-up.
For some women, the ability to freeze eggs is also a lifeline; they include cancer patients, those who have yet to find the right partner and, yes, a handful who just want to put off procreating until their feet are firmly on the career ladder. But it’s a painful, invasive procedure with a success rate of less than 20 per cent, so it isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly. Given it could rob women of the chance to have children, it shouldn’t be dangled casually in front of them as if it were of no more significance than luncheon vouchers, a company car or access to a pied a terre. How long before this “opportunity” becomes an expectation? How long before a woman’s commitment is questioned because she would prefer to have her children when nature dictates? “She’s not ambitious/thrusting/board material, she isn’t even willing to freeze her eggs,” someone clutching a clipboard might sneer as they strike another name off their list of female contenders. That doesn’t sound like a brave new world, it sounds pretty much like the old one.
We have fallen into this trap before; the 1990s and 2000s saw the rise of the super-mum – women like Karren Brady and French justice minister Rachida Dati, who were back in the office days after their labour. These women were lauded for their refusal to let pregnancies stand in the way of their promotion, but they weren’t at the vanguard of some great social movement, they were just too scared to do anything else. Today, Brady admits she wished she’d spent more time with her babies and, far from suggesting women should freeze their eggs, investment fund manager Nicola Horlick – who juggled her job with having six children – is warning them not to put having a family on hold. Those women’s sacrifices may have helped propel them up the career ladder, but it did little to tackle broader inequality; 23 years after Horlick joined Morgan Grenfell Asset Management, female CEOs are still rare and paid 35 per cent less than their male counterparts.
What is needed is not the chance to extend a woman’s reproductive potential (unless, of course, you can also extend her youth) but a re-imagining of the whole system. Out must go the machismo, the back-stabbing and the culture of presenteeism, in must come flexible working, affordable childcare and a recognition that combining children and a career is something men have done for centuries.
But that would take vision, investment and a huge cultural shift; it’s unlikely to happen overnight anywhere, but particularly in companies like Apple and Facebook, notwithstanding the presence of Sandberg whose answer to discrimination against women was effectively that they should speak up more. It’s way easier to offer women the chance to pawn their fertility in exchange for a seat at the table and pass it off as a revolutionary gesture.