A FEW YEARS ago, I had a notion — based on news that some 20-year-old celebrity had gotten engaged — that the motherhood pendulum was going to swing. Women, who have pushed childbearing later and later, would start having kids a little earlier. I imagined some happy world where women were realistic about fertility, and workplaces embraced flexibility, and everyone met in the middle for happy, balanced lives.
Well, not if you work for Apple or Facebook, which revealed this week that they’ll pay for female employees to freeze their eggs. The perk is nice (if a little “Brave New World”), but the message is clear: Lean in now, and save the kids for later.
Stipulated: It’s great to have technological advancements that help more people grow their families, on their terms. It’s true that these costly procedures shouldn’t be limited to the rich. And yes, the egg-freezing benefit is partly a recruitment move, on a list of workplace perks that also includes foosball tables, on-site gyms, and free-beer Thursdays. (Next up: Fertility Friday! Egg extraction in Conference Room A, then head to the pop-up martini bar!)
But in hotshot industries, perks can be a double-edged sword. They’re designed to attract talent, but also — let’s be honest — to keep people in the office once they’re there, mired in the quicksand of funky chairs, having productive conversations at hours that do not correlate with some child’s bedtime.
That’s why Glenn Cohen, a professor at Harvard Law School, worries that an egg-freezing perk could function as a sorting mechanism, too. Soon, he fears, we’ll be able to divide the workplace into three categories: men, women, and women who want kids, kind of soon.
Cohen, who specializes in law, medicine, and ethics, blogged more than a year ago about rumors that some law firms were offering egg-freezing benefits. At the time, few firms would go on the record about it. Cohen guessed that they feared a backlash, since the perk would could be seen as “frank recognition on their part” that women couldn’t succeed at work if they had kids.
Both Big Law and Big Tech, Cohen notes, have struggled to keep and promote female employees, who doubt they can be on management tracks and still have family lives. Ironically, these companies — Facebook and Apple included — offer some of the most generous maternity leave policies in corporate America.
That’s great, but it’s not exactly where the rubber hits the road. The rubber hits the road a few years after birth, when your kid wakes up with a 101.3 fever, or the championship soccer game starts at 3:45, or you simply decide that life is too crazy and one spouse needs to cut back the working hours, and — due to desire or salary differential — it winds up being the mom.
We’ve all raged about income inequality and the dearth of women in corporate leadership. We’ve also recognized that both are partly due to women’s rational decisions to lean out for awhile. Asking men to do more housework is nice, but not sufficient. (Besides, plenty of GenX-and-younger men already cook and change diapers. Old issue. Let’s move on.)
The trouble is corporate culture, and men struggle with it, too. Studies show that most don’t take advantage of their companies’ paternity leave policies — because they fear career repercussions.
Women also understand the culture. These big-headline benefits, touted as fairness and empowerment, send a message that might make the lean in/out divide even more stark. Freeze your eggs and head to the C-suite! By the time you’ll have kids, you’ll be making so much money that you’ll be able to afford a round-the-clock nanny!
Problem solved — American-style.