Panem et circenses et infantes

Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.

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A friend showed me this article today: Apple and Facebook are covering up to $20k for “fertility and surrogacy” costs, including egg-freezing procedures.

Apple and Facebook are adding this perk to their arsenal in an escalating battle to recruit and retain technical talent, especially female workers. […] While still uncommon, egg-freezing allows women to remove and store eggs when they are in their prime fertility window, which often overlaps with prime career-advancement years. The quality of a woman’s eggs declines as she gets older, putting many women in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s. Egg freezing allows women to stockpile healthy eggs while advancing their careers or waiting to meet a partner with whom they’d like to start a family.

One one hand, it’s nice that these are covered in employee perks now, I guess? I see company help with fertility and surrogacy as being particularly beneficial to same-sex or infertile couples who want to have children. Really, any help with fertility-related costs is always welcome: these procedures are not cheap. Who knows, I might have to use them one day.

On the other hand, that this is being presented as some sort of feminist move by some quarters (not least the companies themselves) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A large company isn’t thinking about feminism. It’s thinking about talent retention and pleasing the board and making money, and anyone who believes otherwise is even more idealistic than I am (which is really saying something). Apple says, “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.” I’m sorry, did you mean, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they delay starting families, because now they have no reason not to?”

I’m all for expanding people’s access to the option of having children later. But this move is obviously going to create the expectation that they should have children later. Telling employees “hey, egg-freezing is now on the company dime” also inadvertently (?) sends the message that “now you really have no excuse to be taking maternity leave before your forties” – by which point you’ve probably dropped out of the tech industry for other reasons. If, as a young parent, you come back to workplace problems, hey, it’s your fault for stubbornly running off to pop a baby out when we offered you the chance to do it later.

I’m honestly a little astounded that this passive-aggressive move is actually a solution two of our tech giants have come up with to alleviate the maternity-dropout problem. Apple’s statement is telling: the focus is on getting women to “do the best work of their lives” instead of, I don’t know, being good parents, and it reinforces the unhealthy tech-industry obsession with a warped definition of “passion”*. Instead of making difficult institutional changes that support effectively starting a family and having a stellar career at the same time, let’s delay the childbearing window of our employees instead so that they can work harder for us before they burn out or leave to have their (delayed) kids at last.

Of course, it’s a hard problem to face. Important employees making significant lifestyle changes is tough for any business; in the ultra-competitive, sped-up, hyper-capitalist environment of high technology, it can be crippling. It’s far easier to distract from the root problem with false feminism.

But here’s the real problem. Why are those of us with wombs even “in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s”? Because they’re afraid of what might happen after that decision. Because “successful early career” and “children” are still widely incompatible, for some reason. Look on parenting forums and see the collective hand-wringing of ten thousand expectant parents. Ask your mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces. This isn’t something you need polls and statisticians to understand. (Numbers, anyway: 43% of UK mums on maternity leave will re-enter the workforce earlier than they would like; 47% of them cite job security as a reason.)

The tech industry is snapping up the best and brightest of our generation, right? They do it so that they can solve hard problems. How to support gazillions of complex queries for over a billion people with subsecond speed is a hard problem. So is this. Tech is one of the best ways of enacting positive social change today, but helping employees freeze their eggs isn’t the way to do it. Sponsoring egg-freezing is part of a family-friendly solution, and helping people have more options with regards to their personal fertility is always good. But fixing gender inequality in the workplace due to parental needs doesn’t start from giving ambitious employees the ability to start a family later** instead of never. Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.


 

* I’ve been doing some research lately, and startlingly few companies talk about their employees like they’re people, not factories.

** As if children were expensive toys, to be postponed indefinitely and acquired at a later date, once enough money had been saved. That’s a huge factor that goes into family planning, obviously, but it’s really not that simple.

Author: krysjez

I'm a student of computer/cognitive science, artist and geek. Nice to meet you! Follow my adventures at https://inmannheim.wordpress.com

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