Keep your eyes on the bigger picture.

Freezing Eggs Isn't a Corporate Conspiracy

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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I've been thinking a lot about Apple and Facebook and egg freezing. Apple said this week that it would cover up to $20,000 of the cost of this fertility option, following a similar initiative that Facebook announced in January.

And as that news got around yesterday, people were shocked. Before I jump into why I wasn't so surprised, and even why I like it, I've got a couple of questions for you.

Did you know that Bloomberg LP, my employer, will cover the cost of infertility treatments? The program is worth about $30,000 in medical and drug costs and it includes education and emotional support. If I see an in-network provider for such services, it's totally free. Free! What a great perk for me, a person who put her career first and the idea of a family on the backburner. Maybe if I want kids in my 40s, I can have them.

Did you know that ThomsonReuters has a similar program? When a friend of mine was weighing a management job in the Reuters newsroom, he made sure that in vitro fertilization (or IVF) was covered. He and his wife were pushing 40 and they wanted a familial insurance policy of sorts, a way to boost their chances of having a child.

Did you know that fertility aid has become a fairly normal perk at many Fortune 500 companies? Big firms offer IVF for lots of reasons, but the most obvious one is to respond to the reality that people now wait longer to have families. Companies also usually cover some of the high fees associated with adoption. People adopt kids for lots of reasons, including flexibility when it comes to family planning. How do I know this? My parents had two kids. Then a decade later they adopted me and my brother.

I know what informs some of the worries that got around after the Apple announcement: Big, technocratic companies might be using these perks to suck the best working years out of their female employees. Evil vampire geniuses at corporate HR ply us with fertility and adoption coverage, thus securing greater access to our young, alert minds.

What happens next? We become 40-something husks (because lord knows, women teeter on the verge of uselessness in every conceivable way at 40) and then and only then do our corporate masters allow us to finally procreate. As our weary 50-something bodies drag toddlers and teenagers from day care to soccer practice, somewhere a corporate overlord will smile with glee: "We got their best years. They never knew what hit 'em. Heh, heh, heh."

But you know what? That's not what I think is happening here. For starters, it's an insane scenario. And it's also ageist and sexist. It implies that all women want kids, and that to aid in the delay of the holy act of childbirth is to cheat them out of The Most Important Thing They Will Ever Do. It also suggests that the only good time to have a family is in your 20s or 30s, and the only good way to do it is by getting pregnant. Those ideas made sense when we all watched "Leave It to Beaver," but it doesn't really apply in today's "Modern Family" world.

So, back to this thing about Facebook and Apple and the eggs, which my colleague Megan McArdle has also examined.

Most of the news media has focused on one idea: Tech companies are paying women off in exchange for the best years of their lives. They're pushing them to never stop working, ever, not even to engage in the sacred ritual of childbirth. As the Washington Post put it, these tech companies "won't, can't or don't want to change the way they expect people to work in technology. So you, dearie, must use said technology to change the way you expect to live."

This narrative presupposes a lot of things, including that egg freezing is a magical cryogenic career booster, an easy and simple way to con women into putting off babies. My former editor at Fortune, Leigh Gallagher, froze her eggs and her lovely account of that experience makes it clear that it's no picnic. The procedure is similar to IVF. You have to pass a blood and hormone test just to be eligible. You undergo daily hormone injections. You spend a lot of time at a fertility clinic. And there's no guarantee that the eggs will turn into babies when you want a family down the road.

Smart, rich companies -- tech and otherwise -- know that reproductive and family-centric offerings appeal to the smart, accomplished and demanding employees that they so desperately need. Google, Apple and other big tech names cover birth control, IVF, adoption services, maternity leave and paternity leave. Some cover the cost of surrogates. Nontech companies like Goldman Sachs and Whole Foods offer similar perks and on-site day-care centers to boot.

Those companies also figured out (because women and gay people and workers of all ages have been fighting to be recognized) that people form families in all sorts of different, nontraditional ways. Some men want paternity leave and some are stay-at-home dads. Some people want to adopt, while others use surrogates or fertility clinics to have biological children. Sometimes both partners work and they need day care for their kids.

Don't be surprised if companies that compete fiercely for talent, such as financial firms, eventually offer egg freezing, too.

There are lots of reasons to criticize tech companies for not caring about women. They don't pay them as much money, especially if they have kids. They don't promote them. And only the military can give the tech industry a run for its money when it comes to exposing women to sexual assault and harassment.

Freezing eggs isn't a manifestation of tech misogyny. It's a perfectly fine benefit that's in keeping with the sorts of fertility perks that many companies already offer. To focus on this as a symbol for bigger problems that women have in the tech industry means we're taking our eyes off other, real problems and not embracing this for what it is: a wonderful, progressive benefit.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net