How are women supposed to think about freezing our eggs?
Judging from the media reaction to Apple and Facebook’s promise of free egg freezing, we should feel grateful for the opportunity for more reproductive choice. Or else maybe appalled at the implicit message these large tech companies are sending their female employees, namely: Please wait and work through your prime here before having children.
On the ground, it’s more complicated.
It’s so hard for women in high-intensity careers to juggle their jobs and their personal lives. Honestly, we need all the help we can get: egg freezing, day care capacities, sufficient maternity leave, adoption help or any other services companies can afford them. Companies need to get top talent through the door. They need to convince them to stay.
Women have been leaving in droves. In a survey of 716 women who left the tech field never to return, two-thirds of them cited motherhood as a deciding factor. A 2009 report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology corroborates these findings, stating that 56 percent of women leave the tech field midway through their careers. Many said they felt the industry didn’t have room to accommodate the equal needs of a family.
Take Hep Svadja, a photographer and former Web developer for a technology company in San Francisco. She has three children. Instead of putting her family planning off until she was in her 40s, she had all three by the time she was 20.
Svadja is now in her 30s with three teenagers who are mature enough to demand less of her. They go to school and can take care of themselves for a few hours when they get home. She no longer has to worry about feeding and clothing and bathing them. On the weekends, they’re out with friends, or can pop in a movie by themselves and not ask her 20,000 questions about it. She has the time and space to dedicate to her career, having her intensive child rearing days behind her. She said she’s a little worried about what the policy of egg freezing says to women in the field.
“Personally, I look at it as a little exploitative,” she said of the new policies, “since the implicit reasoning is that you are going to be working so hard you might need those eggs later.”
But, she said, “I can see it also as a benefit for those who want to put off family planning for their careers for awhile … as steps are taken to make sure it’s not exploitative, as in ‘We let you freeze your eggs now work 18 hour days for us.'”
Jessica Wallace, who once worked for Microsoft with a small toddler at home, doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t see any nefarious message in it, like telling women not to have children,” Wallace said. “Microsoft used to offer up to $15,000 for infertility treatments. I suppose someone could interpret that as ‘work full time for us until you’re past your optimal kid-having years, and we’ll help you out later,’ but I never met anyone who thought of it that way.”
And for Leeanne Brennan, who works in the arts industry, it’s a logical and necessary step in the evolution of equality.
“In order to get to the positions that they’re in today, many women have had to put off relationships to focus on getting their PhD or riding in the ranks at work,” she said. “Not only are these women late to the game in finding a mate, but now that they’re educated and wiser in their older years, they’re less willing to settle for someone. Freezing eggs is a great way to support these women.”
But egg harvesting can also be tedious and difficult.
New technology allows embryos to be implanted at five days, instead of three, improving the rate of conception to more than 60 percent. But so far, only 10 percent of women are choosing this over the tried-and-true method of implanting four eggs at three days gestation and praying for the best (a practice that frequently results in multiples). Still, a frozen egg and even the best IVF procedure is not a guaranteed baby. Many women face multiple rounds of treatment before one sticks. Plus, egg freezing is a two-week process, with another two weeks’ recovery time, involving hormone injections and sedation.
Not to mention, having children at any age and bringing them up is exhausting. And it only gets tougher when you get older. Hillary Carpinella is a teacher in Massachusetts who has undergone several rounds of IVF treatments, resulting in a set of twins and another child, all under age 5.
“I question the forethoughts of women who are putting families on hold,” Carpinella said. ”I am 34, and I am exhausted at the end of every single day. Now that I have kids, I don’t think I could do this 10 or 15 years from now and have the energy to take care of them and give them the attention and time they need.”
And there’s also a question of what happens next. Companies like Apple and Facebook have enormous on-site perks for employees, but one that’s missing is a child care facility. “There is huge pressure on women in tech to never let having a family impact them in any way,” Svadja said. “I’ve been let go from jobs before because I insisted on picking up my kids from day care when the day care closed.”
The road to equality for women in the workplace is long and winding. There are no clear-cut answers. Used correctly, egg freezing could make some women’s lives easier, but it is only one small step of many needed.