Tech titans Apple and Facebook made waves this week when news broke that both companies are now offering to pay for two rounds of egg-freezing for female employees — an expensive and physically demanding procedure that can cost upwards of $20,000.
Apple said it decided to cover the fertility treatment — which involves taking drugs for several weeks to coax the ovaries into producing multiple eggs at once, and then freezing them so they can be used with IVF at a later date — because it was a benefit employees said they wanted. The company’s new head of human resources reportedly polled all 98,000 staff members and, perhaps as a way to attract top female talent in an industry widely criticized as skewing heavily male, will offer the benefit starting in January.
But because Silicon Valley culture has also normalized pulling all-nighters, living in business incubator crash pads and passing up vacations even when a company offers its employees unlimited days off, some are questioning whether Apple and Facebook are offering the egg-freezing benefit because they want to be family-friendly workplaces — or as a way to squeeze more work out of employees by giving them an incentive to delay childbirth.
Though Apple has said the new policy is about caring for its employees, experts are conflicted about the possible underlying motivations.
“It sends the wrong message,” said Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, and co-author of the book “Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology.” He has loudly denounced the tech industry’s gender imbalance.
“Rather than addressing the needs of women and men who want to have children and providing the facilities and support, they are encouraging employees to put work ahead of family,” Wadhwa told Al Jazeera. “Companies should be providing child care facilities, flexible work hours and other support — not telling them to defer having children. Plus, this is geared towards younger employees who are at (childbearing) age.”
Most employees at both Apple and Facebook are male. Just 30 percent of Apple’s 98,000 employees are women and at Facebook, where there were 7,185 employees as of June 2014, 31 percent are female. The gender breakdown at Facebook is even more skewed in tech-related roles, just 15 percent of which are filled by women, according to the company’s website.
However, in addition to perks like free food, many Silicon Valley-based companies do offer some of the most generous family leave policies in the United States, which lags behind its industrialized counterparts in legislation providing paid parental leave. Facebook, for example, gives both new mothers and fathers four months of paid parental leave and $4,000 in cash for baby items. Apple offers mothers four weeks paid leave before giving birth and 14 weeks paid leave afterward, and fathers and other non-birth parents can take six weeks paid leave.
But neither Apple nor Facebook offers on-site child care for new parents once they come back to work, though Facebook does offer some reimbursement for child care costs. While Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer famously built a nursery next to her office and returned to work just two weeks after giving birth, only 7 percent of U.S. employers offer on-site child care, according to a 2014 National Study of Employers survey.
“If they had more women in executive management, these companies would no doubt create more sensible policies,” Wadhwa said.
But others say technology companies are smart to at least be opening up the conversation about fertility and family planning, since both women and men are increasingly delaying marriage and childbirth nationwide, not least in Silicon Valley.
“My reaction to it is, what a great discussion to be having,” said Sharon Vosmek, chief executive officer of Astia, a San Francisco-based group that promotes and supports women-led companies and links them with investors. “The more we can make the discussion about bringing the human element to the table, the more competitive we’ll be able to be in Silicon Valley.”
Research suggests that most women who elect to freeze their eggs are not doing it because they are trying to get ahead in their careers. In a 2013 study of nearly 200 women who were undergoing the process, most were over the age of 35 and cited their lack of a romantic partner as the primary reason for not yet having children. Just 20 percent said “workplace inflexibility” was the reason they were doing it.
Another study, from 2008, found that companies that covered infertility treatments for employees had higher morale and improved recruitment and retention of staff.
Still, while funding employee egg-freezing may be a well-intended attempt to level the playing field for women working at Apple and Facebook, at its core it seems misguided, said Sally Applin, a Silicon Valley-based doctoral candidate in social anthropology and computing at the University of Kent at Canterbury in the United Kingdom.
She has worked in the computer software and telecommunications industries in the Bay Area for more than 20 years, and her research observations have shown that — much like how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants the world to have affordable Internet access — Silicon Valley culture prioritizes technology as a solution for society's problems.
“Rather than look at how sexism in technology is overlooked, we’re still not treating women equally, we’re not setting up structures for single-parent families, we’re not helping women if they want to be moms and work if they’re still single, we’re trying this technology solution,” she said. “It feels like a Band-Aid on the real problem that isn't being addressed.”
That might be because executives in charge of making human resources decisions at technology companies are often men, and are thinking about what a largely male employee base might need, Applin said.
“They have a perspective, an interest and an experience that may not be the same as primary caregivers, or women,” she said. “That’s the stuff that needs to be examined and resolved.”