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Apr 20, 2023

How time flies. It’s almost ten years since Facebook famously made headlines globally, when it announced it was offering (what was then), a very unusual perk: the ability for female staff to freeze their eggs.

The benefit – whereby Facebook would pay (up to $20,000), to cover the costs of staff to have their eggs frozen – was quickly followed by Google and Apple, and was hailed as a progressive step towards women taking control of their family, fertility and their careers.

“We want to empower women to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families,” declared Apple. “These employers should be commended,” added Jennifer Tye – who at the time worked for Glow, the health company that provides information to women wanting to conceive.

Addressing the ‘why’

Facebook claimed the perk was introduced in response to staff demanding it, and considering women made up of 57% of the workforce in professional occupations at the time, but only 26% of professionals in the technology sector – news of its provision garnered extra kudos, due to its potential to help rebalance rampant gender inequalities.

It makes sense. Considering one in eight US couples now has trouble conceiving (this is defined as trying to have a baby unsuccessfully for more than a year), the benefit is highly prized.

The number of women having problems either getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term has risen by more than 21% since 1982, and employer-led support is coming at a time when the cost of having fertility treatments privately is beyond what many Americans can afford.

The typical price for a one egg freezing cycle in the US is $11,000, with additional charges including hormone medication ($5,000) and storage ($2,000).

Some, but limited criticism back then…

It should be noted, that at even the time egg-freezing perks were first introduced, support was not entirely universal. Amongst praise for firms like Facebook, came the inevitable – but small, it has to be said – backlash.

Some hinted that the perk appeared to have more sinister overtones; that it was merely introduced to keep young, fertile, women working longer.

Some suggested it saved employers the inevitable cost and disruption that having staff go on maternity leave caused. At the time though, this quickly dissolved. The value to staff of having their fertility supported was more than outweighed by these small pockets of criticism.

…but is it too ubiquitous now?

Fast forward to today though, and less than a decade on, this once-extraordinary perk is almost mainstream.

JP Morgan, Microsoft and Unilever are just some of the many organizations that now offer egg freezing. In fact, in 2020 more than two-fifths (42%) of large US employers offered some sort of coverage for IVF treatment, while almost one-fifth (19%) offered egg freezing. For companies over 500 staff a still significant 11% offer egg-freezing too.

But as coverage has gradually extended, to almost ubiquitous levels, comes renewed focus on whether this type of family-friendly benefit really is ‘family-friendly’ at all.

Last week TLNT (in our HR stories of the week round-up) reported about how University of Virginia sociology professor, W. Bradford Wilcox, was now describing employer provided egg-freezing perks as ‘anti-family-friendly.’

According to Wilcox, the perk is a lever being pulled to keep women of reproductive age tied to their desks.

“It’s sold as a work-family policy, but it’s really about minimizing women’s opportunities to have kids in the prime years when it’s easiest for them to have children,” he said.

He also added that it is there for far more manipulative and pernicious reasons, arguing it is a “huge expense [for companies] to lose a good worker to parenthood.” He says: That expense is effectively a lot greater than the cost of freezing her eggs.”

What he’s not-so-subtly contending is that employers are either deliberately, or are certainly very calculating in their provision of fertility treatments – that it is a way of delaying parenthood for their top female staff.

“The employer is basically trying to get the employee to kick the can down the road so that in the moment they’re fully attached to the job,” he says. The danger, he suggests, is that these same employees may then miss their reproductive ‘window’ entirely, and come to regret delaying having a family by thinking freezing their eggs was the solution.

Are employers part of the fertility problem?

So is providing fertility perks – ironically – part of the fertility problem?

Are employers creating the impression having a family can wait (but too late for some)?

 And are companies benefiting by offering this perk by causing employees to consider prioritizing their career first?

“Fertility and family-forming is a problem that has been with us for a long time, and it’s one that’s only gradually being talked about – in part because of these company-provided perks,” says Dr David Adamson, the eminent reproductive endocrinologist; former president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and the CEO of ARC Fertility.

Speaking exclusively to TLNT, he says: “Demand for fertility treatment is high, with data that suggests around 30% of Americans have either used fertility treatments or know someone who has. The fact employers can provide support for this means that in my personal opinion, issues around gender inequality are tackled, and the health of society in general benefits.”

According to Adamson there are clear employer benefits of providing such perks. He says: “For employees struggling with fertility, data shows that they have lower productivity at work; less engagement and more mental health problems. When it’s addressed by companies however, these issues are positively impacted, as are DEI goals.” He adds: “It’s critical employers are supportive of family-forming. Everyone has a right to be able to form a family. These benefits don’t just help heterosexuals, but those from the LGBTQ+ community and employers rightly understand how disruptive it can be when employees feel unable to control when they have children.”

But is egg-freezing ‘anti-family’?

The big question, of course, is whether Wilcox is right however, to blame employers for pushing careers over families with the inducement of egg-freezing.

“I can understand the context in which this line of thinking can come up,” agrees Adamson. “But at the root of this lies the assumption that people want to freeze their eggs because they want to stay at work. That’s not the case. There are many reasons employees may want to take advantage of egg freezing. Maybe they’re not with a partner currently; maybe they don’t feel emotionally ready to have a child; maybe they’ve had a medical emergency – such as cancer – that could make them temporarily infertile. There are many, many reasons.”

He adds: “It’s not appropriate if employers offer this perk thinking it will encourage staff to stay at work. And I don’t think that is why many companies offer it. When commentators talk about whether firms are being ‘calculating’ by offering egg-freezing, my response is that if anything, they are, but the other way. They calculate the benefit to their company cultures for being seen as supportive; they calculate the loyalty they’ll generate, and the higher return-to-work rates from women who do have children; they calculate that it’s about doing the right thing. Even employees don’t avail themselves of the perk will feel better about their company, because they know they’re working for a supportive organization.”

Adamson concedes that “there probably are employers out there that still don’t want their female employees to get pregnant,” but he suggests those that are backward enough to still think this are unlikely to be offering egg-freezing as a way of discouraging starting a family.

“Family forming benefits are just part of what people seek now,” he says. “If one company doesn’t offer it; job hunters will seek it elsewhere. The best employers realize that by giving the best support they can, they are seen as go-to employers.”

He adds: “It’s also worth noting that providing egg freezing doesn’t substantially raise employers’ healthcare costs. A recent Mercer study found that 97% of firms offering egg-freezing support have not seen a rise in their health benefits costs.”

As fertility is increasingly discussed, and becomes less of a taboo topic, it’s highly likely demand for employer-led support for family forming will continue.

While there might still be vocal voices against it, HRDs should be confident that if they decide to offer egg freezing, it will be massively appreciated by staff – both those desperate to start a family, and those for whom it conveys the feeling that they work for caring and progressive organizations.