By Michelle Quinn
San Jose Mercury News.
The cascade of criticism to the news that Apple and Facebook will pay female employees who want to freeze their eggs strikes me as misdirected.
Rather than seeing two enlightened companies offering a valuable perk for female employees, critics warn that the companies are trying to squeeze more work out of women by making it easier for them to put motherhood on ice. And techno-utopians, who think an algorithm can solve all of life’s problems, are thoughtlessly going along with the plan, the critics say.
“The premise of companies offering such a benefit, that children are a project best taken up as one nears or when one is in retirement, is coldly utilitarian,” one editorial warned.
Of course, that isn’t the premise of the egg-freezing benefit. But painting such a bleak and extreme picture appeals to the backlash against the tech industry.
What’s lost is that women at these companies, real people caught in the grips of the structural dilemma of work, fertility and their lives, are the ones asking for the benefit.
And given the industry’s persistent gender problem, tech firms should do everything, from examining recruitment to rethinking benefits, to send a message that female employees are valued.
This benefit, in its symbolic value alone, sends that message.
“Silicon Valley is in an arms race for talent and particularly for women,” said Cali Williams Yost, who consults with companies about work-life issues. Egg freezing “is something that some tech-savvy young women have identified and have asked for. In an effort to attract and retain this demographic, (the companies) are responding,” she said.
Much of the criticism of the egg-freezing benefit strikes me as rooted either in a bygone era, or a wish for a different world in which women didn’t face a limited fertility window that for many coincides with the time they are building their careers.
I am rooting for a different world, too, but one in which workers have more flexibility. They can work and raise kids with no parenthood penalty to their career. They can, if they want, have children in their 20s, take time to parent and then train for a career. Or they can put off having children and launch their careers, then spend time building a family and then restart their jobs.
After all, we are living and working longer, yet our lives are still structured so that many have to work hard the same years they are having and raising children.
And in this different world, employers would offer several ways for workers to succeed. They would change harsh corporate cultures that say only those available around the clock are destined for advancement.
We have not achieved that enlightened world yet. As we work to get there, people have to cope with the choices in front of them.
The question about being ready to be a parent is intensely personal, tied up with many issues, including whether a woman has a partner or feels financially stable.
Companies should help make that choice easier, and some do. They can offer maternity and paternity leave, child care benefits and flexible work hours. Even better, they can employ women who are parents to show others that it can be done, and done well.
In fact, tech may have a unique selling point for women.
The gender wage gap is smaller in tech than some other professions, according to a Harvard labor economist. That may be because women in tech are more likely to be in results-only environments, rewarded for the work they do, rather than the face time they put in.
“We should be changing the structure of work and also helping people in the current situation,” said Shelley Correll, professor of sociology and the director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford.
Facebook and Apple’s egg-freezing benefit may be utilized by just a few.
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But it gives women another choice, potentially a little more control of their fertility.
Isn’t there a danger, some argue, that companies will subtly, or not so subtly, encourage female workers to delay their fertility?
Imagine the conversation: Go freeze your eggs and then we can talk about a job here!
I guess that could happen. But I am not that cynical.
And besides, it’s off-point.
Most of the choices women face are “second best,” said Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings Law School.
“For some women, working in this second-best world, they think their best choice is to freeze their eggs, and who are we in this second best world to say it isn’t,” Williams said. “Companies should eliminate the maternal bias, not the benefit.”
I don’t expect a parade for Apple and Facebook.
But come on. Let’s celebrate that two local firms are breaking ground by giving female employees another option for navigating one of life’s toughest junctures.
It could help until the better world shows up.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michelle Quinn is a business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News