Eggheads

Like cities at night, smoothies which include five different fruits and being able to renew your library books on a computer, two massive American companies offering to freeze the eggs of their female staff is something which make me feel like I’m living in the future. Something in me – both head and ovaries – bridled at the news from Apple and Facebook, which will take effect from next year, for their American employees. Both companies asked thousands of their respective employees what matters to them, what sorts of new large-scale policies would make their working lives better. You can just about imagine Tim Cook quickly cobbling together an employee satisfaction questionnaire for Apple employees and dashing round his offices with the documents fresh in his hand after news that Mark Zuckerberg and co. had done just that at Facebook. Silicon Valley is, naturally, a competitive place. Odd, but of course not odd at all, that both Valley boys are doing similar things at roughly the same time.

Facebook are now offering female staff up to $20,000 worth of ocyte-cryopreservation. Apple will follow suit from January 2015 – alongside employees being entitled to help with “adoption issues” as well as $4,000 payments at Facebook for new parents, and Apple’s 18 week paid maternity leave.

Whence the generous offers of Facebook and Apple? The coinciding timing of a woman’s fertile years and the stage of her life when she is likely to be establishing herself in a career seems like a horrid, Daily Maily joke. It’s not Apple or Facebook’s fault that there is disparity between female and male fertility, but if the options tacitly suggested are either to have children way before joining the staff of Apple or Facebook or to scale the corporate ladder and put one’s eggs in a freezer and worry about it later, we don’t really have options; the twin poles of doing it early in life and taking our chances with frozen eggs later on are pretty shabby. Questioning the motives of two giant corporations offering the option of egg cryogenics isn’t entirely cynical – Mother Nature, the tricky cow, makes it easier for us to mother children when we are younger; might not Facebook and Apple prefer younger and fresher women? Author and seer Douglas Coupland wrote about the youth-loving Silicon Valley in 1995 in Microserfs, where Microsoft employees were considered past it at 35.

I sincerely hope that many women find themselves on its winning side, and I don’t think the whole idea is necessarily completely terrible from beginning to end, but there are many aspects of the plan which seem to have been overlooked. Facebook and Apple seem to be presenting the plan to the world’s media as a non-problematic alternative to natural conception; in practice, this isn’t an either have children young or definitely conceive from frozen eggs deal – egg freezing involves heavy doses of hormones, a needle through the vagina and, crucially, no guarantee of conception. The issue, too, of how an older uterus might cope with its role in bringing to term a pregnancy seems to have gone unannounced. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be a consideration, and, again, all of this isn’t Apple or Facebook’s fault; but the glossing over of potential pitfalls is serious stuff.

Legal wrangles in the USA, a famously litigious land, might cause trouble in this frozen paradise; I wonder what strings are attached. Who would own the frozen eggs? If the female employee left immediately after treatment, could her eggs be “claimed” by the company, or deduct the charge from her last pay cheque?  I’m probably worrying for nothing: Apple and Facebook aren’t that daft – they’ll have the legal stuff  wrapped up, tied tight, watertight. Will tiny Apple and Facebook logos be imprinted upon our eggs?

The whole shebang seems inescapably American: the workings of a healthcare system which is not free, plus a corporate plan is supposed to equal American women rejoicing in this new gender equality. Here in Britain, criticisms might have an additional edge, given that we don’t have the merry-go-round of private healthcare. (The comments section on The Guardian practically exploded when the news was announced.) The NHS has quite strict guidelines on who can and can’t have fertility treatment, and how many rounds, but at least there’s none of this father-may-I between individual and giant corporation. Why should just employees of Apple and Facebook have this option in the USA?

Well – it’s because of money, which shifts things at macro and micro levels. And Facebook isn’t just a boys’ club: Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, currently valued at $1 billion, went from Harvard to management consultant to Washington Post senior executive to Facebook profiteer. Her philosophy, and central message in her book Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead is ostensibly feminist and inclusive: women are great, there should be many, many more women in positions of leadership in big business; why is there still the continuation of the nonsense that assertive women are maligned?; women shouldn’t avoid new jobs or responsibilities when they know there is a child on the way. All good stuff, but it’s a lot easier to say when you went to an Ivy League university, and ended up being in the C.O.O. of Facebook. Personal wealth doesn’t solve the quandary of the work/child/life balance, but, especially alongside a personal partnership with an equally successful man, probably goes quite a long way to cushioning it.

Perhaps the female employees of Facebook and Apple scored something of an own goal in asking for the up-and-coming cryogenics: perhaps, even, their requests were tailored to fit something more palatable for the two companies. Facebook’s payment of $4,000 to new parents in their employ (who can spend the money in any way they choose) is great, as is Apple’s relatively generous parental leave care. Nordic countries are often cited in the new parent paid leave debate: new Icelandic fathers can currently take up to three months off from their jobs and remain on 80% of their salary, Danish parents can share a year of paid leave, and shared Swedish parental leave has been in place since 1974. Here in Britain, “a framework for shared parental leave” will be introduced in 2015. It’s taken us until now to really challenge the assumption that women would always  be the ones who stay at home with a new baby. In the USA, employers are not at all obliged to give any paid parental leave, and there is currently an across-the-board maximum of 12 weeks unpaid leave for both new parents. Demanding something like the Danish system both here and in America wouldn’t be much short of revolutionary given the current state of things on both sides of the Atlantic, but a truly civilized world is one which makes proper room for parents and children, with space to breathe both financial and time, rather than piecemeal one-time financial rewards from companies who feel like giving it.

If we took tech company CEOs seriously all the time, we women wouldn’t even ask for a raise. At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, of all places, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said recently that women in technology shouldn’t ask for a raise – “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.” He also said that this magical silence “…might be one of the initial “super powers” that, quite frankly, women [who] don’t ask for a raise have.” He has since apologised, and stated that there is a need to close the gender pay gap. One suspects that it might be women’s relative lack of assertiveness in the workplace – especially in the male-dominated tech sector – that sees that pay raises aren’t given, not a suppression of their innate metaphysical abilities to get rises by magical Zen means.

When anyone says that women should have children by a certain age, because we don’t have the luxury of putting it off indefinitely and having a career, it rubs us the wrong way because we know it damn well already. A man saying it comes across as an ignorant sexist, and a woman making the statement somehow seems like a head girl who is telling tales out of class. Adding money to the mix slants things even more: fairly recently, a well-known female TV presenter said this; our humphing that “it’s all right for her” might seem a bit churlish, but it’s a legitimate complaint. Sheryl Sandberg and Kirstie Allsopp’s remarkable careers and cushions of cash help them along in a way denied to most women.

We should at least be pushing for much more in the way of company-given breaks for parents, both male and female, on both sides of the Atlantic, with corporate offers to freeze eggs, at best, a sideline to real monetary and calendar-based options for parents and children. The conundrum of how and when to fit having children into one’s life isn’t an entirely female one, but is italicised for us by our biological systems, and real progress would address the fact that we often feel we are swimming against the tide, work and child-wise. The current offers from Apple and Facebook to their American female employees seem to be an alarming means of capitalising on the fertility disparity between women and men, with women not necessarily the winners.

Women are often caught up in the push-pull of problem and false solution: all sorts of media reel us out on the idea that we’re getting old and unsightly and reel us back in with some moisturiser, or shampoo, or make-up, when the problem is that we feel ugly and ashamed of feeling ugly in the first place. Corporations need to play fair, rather than play God. We can navigate using our phones, read books on computers; we’re practically living in the future. We must do our best to make sure that it doesn’t turn out like a David Cronenberg-esque dystopia. The best solution for the balance between our working and personal lives are their integration, in as far as that is possible. We must be careful not to be led a silly dance in which the only thing we go twirling after is promises of stored parts of our own bodies.

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