By Ananya Barua:
Amidst the raging debate over salaries for women in the fiercely competitive and male-dominated technology sector, following Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s remark that women employees shouldn’t ask for a pay raise and instead leave it all on their ‘karma’ to get dues, I chose to venture upon the position of women in the corporate sector. It was around this timeÂ that the announcement by Facebook and Apple about awarding a benefit of $20,000 to female employees who choose to freeze their eggs, came into the picture, quite positively. According to the announcement, their women employees would be benefitted with the expense of egg freezing, along with other perks, during their productive years, and these frozen eggs can later be fertilized to impregnate them when they’re ready. This not only literally ‘freezes’ their biological clock of depreciating fertility, but also gives them a ‘choice’. It is this ‘choice’ that personally intrigued me to scrutinize the matter with greater ardour.
To simplify matters, let’s imagine the situation with a highly inappropriate and trivial example. Going by the stereotypes, if you were at the juncture of deciding a honeymoon trip and had two options. Either to go for the traditional, romantic trip to Paris, or to effectuate the free trip you’d won, to the picturesque and amorously luxurious Tuscany, which one would you choose?
Honestly on having been asked the same, I found myself involuntarily ignore my fantasies of loitering around the corridors of Paris’ Louvre Museum, or have a dinner date by the Eiffel tower. Though Tuscany over Paris, is not at all a bad idea, but forgoing a huge stereotyped fantasy, on the mention of the term ‘free trip’ came as a revelation to me. It’s exactly what many critics of egg-freezing perks, are pointing out.
A technology which involves extraction of woman’s eggs (oocytes) to be frozen and stored, is what Human oocyte cryopreservation, or egg freezing is all about. Later, when the individual is ready, the eggs can be thawed, fertilized and transferred to the uterus as embryos. Though this process, like natural pregnancy, does not ensure 100% live birth, on an average doctors recommend freezing of 15-20 eggs. And, all this comes at quite an expense of almost $20,000 USD, while clinics in India are charging an average of Rs.1.5 lakh to Rs.2 lakh, along with an annual freezing cost hovering around Rs.30,000. It is at this point, that this technology, now advocated by the two topmost corporate agencies, has been creating a buzz with their aim at wooing talented female employees and keeping their current female workforce on board for longer periods.
Although, the move by these corporate giants appear to step toward gender equality, empowering women with the ‘choice’, and bridge the gender-gap in a largely male-dominated Silicon Valley, it also has its backlash. Not only does this contribute to a very negative outlook in the corporate arena regarding the phenomenon of pregnancy of working women, it also, in a very subtle way, de-popularizes the natural procedure of conceivement during the reproductive years of a woman, i.e. 20-30; which is again a very professionally productive period.
But, then again, egg-freezing which was originally devised to make pregnancy possible for women battling cancer, whose treatment involves chemotherapy and radiotherapy, deadly for women’s eggs, can come as a serious blessing for many others, who have somewhat different reasons to do so, apart from their companies’ ‘encouragement’. Apart from medical issues, it can either be, for women unwilling to get married soon, as they haven’t yet met the right person, or for those who choose to stay single and yet conceive their own progeny. Or, plain and simple, for those unwilling to compromise on their professional life, in their most productive years, and enjoy the lovely pangs of motherhood at a later age, in a financially and professionally well settled life. In all these cases, in reality, the independent ‘choice’ is truly epitomized, opposed to the case of ‘incentivised encouragement’ by the corporate companies. And this can be proved by its recent boost in India, where urban women, without waiting to be funded by companies to preserve their fertility are going for egg freezing extensively.
Therefore, this seemingly empowering benefit, where on one hand helps women employees cleverly adjust their time of pregnancy while escaping the phenomenon of steeply declining fertility after 35, on the other hand, it also makes it hard for those who venture upon the ‘other’ traditional option. In other words, in a highly competitive professional jungle, if an individual is given a tempting sum of money to postpone the ‘choice’ of motherhood, a high tendency of stigmatizing the other individual who despite the perk, chooses to have a natural delivery, can take place. It is in high probability that those attempting to go for maternity-leaves and conceive ‘early’, at 28 or 30, going against the benefit, might be termed or considered ‘unprofessional’.
Then, doesn’t this CSR (or, Corporate Social Responsibility) aid, instead of solving the problem of decreasing female work-force during the productive years, contributes to it? It is indeed an idea to think upon;Â whether the matter of ‘choice’ can transform into an unsaid compulsion, once corporates incentivise it. Instead, if maintaining the women working force was all they aim for, then wouldn’t it be more feasible (both financially for the company and psychologically for the employees) to create improved, kids-friendly environment within the office premises? To enhance workplace equality, shouldn’t women, regardless of how they spend their personal lives or their family planning choices, have an ‘equal’ shot at success just like men? If these corporate agencies are bent upon increasing and maintaining their women workforce while helping them be good employees and good mothers, both at the same time, apart from freezing their eggs, there are other effective ways to do so. Extensive maternity leaves, along with flexible working hours, quality day-care benefits and policies facilitating kids at work can ensure greater success rate.
Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, in her article, says, “As the CEO of a company in a male-dominated field, I faced similar decisions when I had kids. I didn’t want to part with my children when they were first born, nor did I want to take time off from my business as we were at a crucial make-or-break turning point. I didn’t think it was fair to have to choose one over the other, so I brought all three of my children into the office with me when they were first born. It worked out so well for me that I now extend this policy to all of my employees at Palo Alto Software.”
Considering the example she puts forth, that, if the $20,000 per woman employee to freeze eggs is instead given to facilitate a full-time nurse for 4-5 months after pregnancy, or the accumulated sum of money dedicated to build real nurseries within office premises, wouldn’t that actually allow women the liberty to work up the ladder of success, have kids at the same time and feel supported and ‘benefited’ in the real sense by the companies.
It is only then, that the real sense of ‘choice’ can be realized and experienced by women, without any authorial upper-hand of the employers or any sense of losing-out, because mind you, egg-freezing never gives you a guarantee of successful pregnancy and delivery. Pregnancy, being a very sensitive issue in the lives manyÂ women and their families, shouldn’t be subjected to any third-party instruction, let alone, incentivised schemes. And, hence, I rest my case here.