Freezing eggs: Is motherhood and work incompatible?

Apple and Facebook's policy for women employees work shows how cryogenics are being couched as a talent attraction strategy.

 |  5-minute read |   21-10-2014
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There is a new movie in town. It is called Frozen: The Workplace Edition. The trailer shows a young woman working hard on her career but she keeps having dreams of starting a family and becoming a parent. When she shares this with her trusted older aunt, she is informed that it is not a dream but a nightmare. One that will kill her career. However there is a cure, to get over this curse. You can freeze your eggs and choose to be a parent when you are older, when your intellectual and productive years are behind you and you are ready to be replaced by a more youthful worker. Go on, try it, she is told. It is your choice. Look forward to a possible future dream or likely a possible nightmare. The last scene of the trailer flashes a warning: Success rate of frozen egg pregnancies is low. Try at your own risk!

I know the whole picture is a little dramatic but the decision by Apple and Facebook to pay for women freezing their eggs for future use has touched a raw chord with many. Before we even talk about cryogenics we need to take a step back and consider the backdrop in which the film is being shot.

This is a backdrop of where many workplaces are - not inherently inclusive in nature. It is a backdrop where often women and their biology is an explicit or implicit consideration in recruitment, promotion potential and re-entry into a firm after a career break in many organisations.

We are trying to deal with centuries of socialisation of both men and women around work and family roles, we are simultaneously trying to create organisation that see potential of women free from biases and blind spots. We still have to actively acknowledge the work-life integration needs of men. And much work remains to be done still.

In this environment, when an iconic firm introduces the support of cryogenics, as a way to “empower women”, the underlying message is – work and motherhood are incompatible, so if you want to put having kids on hold, we will back you up. The last time I checked most of us were working to support families, but now the tables can be turned.

The issue is not as simple as women want a choice and therefore we are making it possible. Women want many other things, as do men – long sabbaticals, weight loss, shorter work hours, more childcare, to bring pets to work and so on – but do companies make all of them possible? They don’t. They choose to support some choices and in the process deny others. The choices that get supported carry around them an implicit statement – whether such a statement was intended or not. Specially if you are a Facebook or an Apple – where you set the tone for the industry best practices, this is bound to happen.

So it is rather unfortunate that cryogenics are being couched as a talent attraction strategy. The former begs the question as to when many things remain to be done around creating inclusive workplaces, how does freezing eggs make it to the top of the list? Has our to-do list become so short that this is an easy next activity to focus on ? If the uptake of the option is say less than ten per cent as some are predicting, are the firms not better of using the $20K per employee to close the wage gap for 100 per cent of the female population at work?

As an HR person that makes a better talent management strategy to my mind. If we had achieved 90 per cent of things that had to be done – worked on blind spots, removed the second generation gender bias from recruitment and performance appraisal, closed the pay gap, provided longer paternity and maternity leave, and tried every trick in the trade and not solved the motherhood penalty and then we want to cryopreserve, then it is a separate conversation altogether – not one less controversial but more worth considering perhaps. I am not sure how many firms have exhausted all possible options before considering supporting egg freezing.

Women of course are free to choose and I am all for more options for women any day but let’s push this out to its next logical frontier. Today motherhood is in the way of complete commitment to work, tomorrow it could be ageing parents, day after it could be raging hormones. Is this a plan to create a way of delaying all of these as well?

So why not openly declare in the recruitment ad that being human is a disability and hence only robots need apply. The introduction of this policy as a talent attraction strategy is offering a band-aid where a surgery is needed. Let’s find a way to engineer a workplace that is more humane and not one that puts our humanity on hold for the sake of work. Yes, some women will want and exercise the current option being offered but that does not solve for fundamental issue of our work cultures becoming incompatible with families in many organisations.

As for our movie - Frozen: The Workplace Edition – it needs a re-writing of the script to make it a real blockbuster. I might recommend adding more involved dads and enhanced parental leave as a possible twist to the plot.

Writer

Tanvi Gautam Tanvi Gautam @tanvi_gautam

The writer is the founder Global People Tree and works with organisations around the globe on the topic of creating more engaged and inclusive workplaces.

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