Apple and Facebook are making headlines this week for covering the cost of egg-freezing procedures and storage for non-medical reasons. Being reported as a "life-changing perk" that can "solve the work-life balance problem," the two companies have been heralded as leaders in making technology careers more accessible for women.
Please. All these benefits do is underscore our toxic "overwork until we die" culture – one in which technology companies want people to sacrifice their youth and prime parenting years for profit. This exchange is made crystal clear in the original NBC News report:
"With notoriously male-dominated Silicon Valley firms competing to attract top female talent, the coverage may give Apple and Facebook a leg up among the many women who devote key childbearing years to building careers. Covering egg freezing can be viewed as a type of 'payback' for women's commitment, said Philip Chenette, a fertility specialist in San Francisco."
NBC also reported that the Silicon Valley giants will cover up to $20,000 under different types of benefits: Facebook began this year under its surrogacy benefit, and Apple will start in January under its fertility benefit. These benefits exist among many, with both companies offering some paid parental leave and subsidized childcare: Apple offers spending accounts for dependent daycare, and Facebook says it "helps with daycare and adoption fees and $4,000 "baby cash" for your new arrival." (Google, on the other hand, offers baby bonuses as well as free onsite daycare.)
In a statement about egg freezing and storage, Apple said: "We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families." But is it actually empowering to freeze one's eggs? A majority of people in a 2013 study said they thought so. In a Reuters report, Jennifer Tye, marketing lead for Glow (a fertility app), says the benefits are positive for women: "When I turned 30, I had this notion that my biological clock was ticking, but I didn't know what my options were. These employers should be commended."
While I think it's good for women to have as many options as possible, I am deeply concerned by the focus on inaccessible technologies that really only perpetuate capitalist career dominance in our lives.
Indeed, the bogus mainstream feminist quest to "have it all" and "lean in" marches on. The concept of putting reproduction "on ice" and thus lessening women's angst has become quite trendy, with Bloomberg Business running headlines like "Freeze your eggs, free your career." Author Emma Rosenblum writes of the process: "Not since the birth control pill has a medical technology had such potential to change family and career planning."
It makes sense that technology companies would attempt to attract more women with access to more technology, but the reality is that egg freezing is out of reach for the vast majority of people. The Guardian says the procedure costs about $10,000 with $500 annual storage fees. These are usually out-of-pocket expenses, even for those with health insurance.
Of course, any parental benefits at all seem amazing when contrasted with the lack of national paid parental leave in the U.S., the high cost of childcare and overall disdain for vacation and balanced workweeks. And when IBM executives publicly declare that they don't like hiring young women because they might reproduce, it is nice to see corporations encouraging family life, whatever the cost. But it is problematic to focus on fertility and childrearing as if it's the only reason women are 45 per cent more likely than men to leave their tech careers.
It's no secret that technology is dominated by white men. Apple's first diversity report revealed a U.S. workforce that is 55 per cent white and 70 per cent male. Facebook's numbers sit at 57 per cent white and 69 per cent male. Time and time again, research points to overall culture as the primary reason women quit their tech jobs. Psychologist Nadya Fouhad surveyed 5,300 women with engineering degrees and found that the primary reasons they were leaving all pointed to the inflexible, male-dominated culture found at many organizations. Only 17 per cent of respondents said they left for caregiving reasons.
Similarly, Kieran Snyder interviewed 716 women about why they left tech. Most said they never want to return despite loving their work, and a quarter cited discrimination as a primary factor. A good number said that having children merely made already difficult work environments harder, with one participant saying: "Motherhood was just the amplifier. It made all the problems that I'd been putting up with forever actually intolerable."
Some women – wealthy, professional women lucky enough to afford it – can freeze all the eggs they want, but it doesn't change the fact that companies like Facebook and Apple's bottom lines are at odds with true work-life balance.