Somewhere between calls to "break the glass ceiling" and the war cry to "have it all," working women found themselves also saddled with the expectation they be it all: the breadwinner, caregiver, fitness queen, thoughtful BFF, sex goddess … the list, it seems, is infinitely expanding. Women strive to fulfill these roles while remaining on the losing end of the wage gap and continuing the hardscrabble fight for representation in the executive ranks (even as they make up nearly half the labour force in Canada).
The pressure is immense.
In stepped a few corporate giants with a plan meant to help young (and youngish) women across North America build their careers, while relieving them of pesky biological-clock considerations: Apple, Facebook and others started subsidizing egg freezing. This, Apple said at the time, could empower women "to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families."
The move elicited cheers for being a step forward for women – a progressive investment in historically inhospitable industries, such as tech and banking. And since women are having children later in life and facing higher infertility rates, there's bound to be demand.
But let's step back for a moment. How come women feel like they can't have children and advance in their careers? Why aren't men struggling with these concerns? And, what exactly do we expect women to do to their bodies – pumping themselves full of hormones and enduring surgical procedures with unknown consequences and no reproductive guarantee – to become the ideal employee?
Choosing to freeze your eggs is a personal decision. In cases where illness robs a person of fertility, freezing to preserve the option of having a child in the future could be a practical risk to take. Some women may elect to stop aging eggs in their tracks while they wait for the right partner.
But reproduction is more than an individual's choice and responsibility. No decisions are made in a void, and work and family are two of the most powerful social institutions that constrain most adult lives. When it comes to freezing eggs to put parenthood on hold, we must question whether women feel free to make their own choices. Some say egg freezing benefits reflect the changing values of women.
"What Apple and Facebook did is position themselves around this issue in a way that I assume reflects what they are hearing in their workplace," said Alex Johnston, executive director at Catalyst Canada, a not-for-profit industry group that aims to expand opportunities for women and business.
Others argue such benefits guilt women into gambling on their fertility, while minimizing the health risks of later pregnancy (not to mention the unknown risks of subjecting your body to rigorous hormone treatments) and poor success rates of harvesting, freezing, thawing and implanting eggs.
The idea that freezing eggs breeds more productive and devoted employees also minimizes the contributions of countless working moms. "That has an underlying assumption that women who are mothers are not as devoted and as productive," says Dr. Rene Almeling, assistant professor at Yale University who focuses on gender and reproductive technologies. "And there's a lot of social-science research to show women who are mothers are just as competent and just as devoted and just as good at working as they were before they became mothers."
Approaching reproduction as solely a women's issue is flawed for scientific reasons, as well. There's evidence that men have "biological clocks" too, and those who father children in the autumn and winter seasons of their lives have a greater chance of passing on genetic mutations that can result in diseases such as autism and schizophrenia. What men drink, smoke, eat and how old they are all matter to reproductive success and the health of babies. More than ever, society must broaden the fertility conversation beyond women, their bodies and their experiences.
Many social scientists say priority work policies should be those that fix the fundamental imbalances – the stuff that makes women second-guess having children in the first place. Both men and women managing work and family demands could benefit from employers offering more flexible working hours, the option to telecommute and subsidized quality daycare. Why not put the money there first?
Major Canadian employers seem to be moving in the right direction. Of the 2015 winners of "Canada's Top 100 Employers," a list of companies offering the best working experiences for employees, almost all of the companies offered flexible working options, said Richard Yerema, managing editor of the annual list. Maternity and parental leave top-up payments have increased dramatically in the last few years, too. Only about one-quarter offered an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) subsidy, mostly in the range of about $5,000 to $10,000.
There's more work to be done. In a piece published last fall in the Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, researchers point out that the conversation about egg freezing fails to account for sexual diversity and socioeconomic status. The fact is, they say, the prime users of this technology are wealthier, white, married women. Even if it were completely safe and effective, egg freezing wouldn't fix the social issues that curb access to reproductive options.
Powerful institutions like work, government and health care shape people's decisions. By reframing our expectations of women at work, we move one step closer to freeing them to truly make their own choices.