As the U.S. heads toward a recession this year, rounds of layoffs have increased the number of professionals seeking new roles. In an effort to attract top female talent, many employers are turning to fertility benefits like egg freezing to make their compensation packages competitive. Egg freezing can cost thousands, so employer coverage seems like a bargain at first glance. But how valuable is it, really? And is this recruiting tool setting up women for disappointment?
A decade ago, almost no employers offered to cover a woman’s egg freezing (except for tech giants like Facebook and Google). Now, more than 1 in 10 do. This number is climbing even higher for trend-setting “jumbo employers” like Cisco, Amazon, and Exxon, where the figure is 1 in 5. Egg freezing used to be used out of medical necessity, such as when a woman was going to undergo a procedure like chemotherapy or radiation that would pose a risk to her eggs. But now, women are increasingly turning to the procedure both to sell their eggs and to extend their career development, and many are ending up sorely disappointed. Is egg freezing, as some say, just an expensive lottery ticket?
Vested Benefits and Vested Interests
Despite what their hiring pamphlets might say, companies aren’t offering these fertility benefits to be kind. Prospective mothers are a liability, one that’s in corporate America’s interest to manage. Thanks to legal protections, companies are no longer allowed to discriminate against women for having children. Family planning is at least nominally supported, and things like firing women once they become pregnant or asking about their family plans in job interviews are illegal in the U.S. Still, these protections can pose a challenge for corporate compliance. Maternity leave, temporary substitute costs, and the efforts of training women who are unlikely to come back soon after giving birth all make having children a nuisance for employers.
1 in 10 employers now offers to cover a woman’s egg freezing.
Pregnancy isn’t a short-term inconvenience, either. Forty-three percent of women don’t return to the corporate grind at all, meaning their lifespan as employees is significantly shorter than that of their male counterparts. Companies aren’t allowed to avoid hiring women altogether, so women in their childbearing years pose a significant hurdle for HR departments. Major players like Activision Blizzard, Burger King, and the WNBA have all come under fire for more blatant pregnancy-related discrimination, and smarter companies are realizing they need to get creative. The solution? Employers doing everything in their power to make women’s career trajectories look more like men’s.
Egg freezing is just one way employers try to bargain with biological clocks. In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision, many companies proudly announced they’d cover women’s out-of-state abortions, including travel, for women who lived in states with higher restrictions. The FDA also recently approved mail-order abortion pills, in spite of risks, a move that will lower the cost of abortion for companies looking to encourage it for their employees.
The Price of False Hope
The average age for first-time mothers keeps rising. As women face more pressure than ever to perform professionally, it makes sense that they’d try to minimize their barriers to career success. A woman’s earnings see an almost 10% increase for each year she delays childbirth, leaving many convinced it’s wisest to nurture their careers to become better resourced mothers later. They’re largely convinced science renders the tradeoff obsolete: In one study, 90% of women said that they believe medical advancements like IVF and egg freezing give them a good chance of conceiving past age 30.
While IVF and fertility treatments have come a long way, their progress has been way outpaced by public confidence. Now, Yale researchers say many career women have unrealistic expectations about both their fertility over time and the limits of fertility technology. They’re calling for public health officials to pump the brakes, stressing the importance of counseling women in the true success rates of these methods.
The effectiveness of egg preservation is way oversold. For-profit fertility clinics and corporations alike want to inflate people’s optimism in egg freezing and IVF, but this encouragement is backed by shaky science. “The pregnancy rate is not as good as I think a lot of women think it will be,” says Dr. Marcelle Cedars, the president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, adding that she believes many women are overly optimistic about the procedure. Egg freezing was initially intended to give women undergoing extremely risky treatments like chemotherapy and radiation a shot at fertility, which is the whole reason employers need to cover it outside of their health plans in the first place. When used electively, it’s considered experimental medicine. And employer-sponsored health plans typically don’t cover experimental treatments.
Many women never used their frozen eggs because they had also delayed marriage.
So, does IVF work? According to a 15-year study, no, more often than not it doesn't. The study of over 500 women found that their odds of live birth from frozen eggs were only 39%. That, of course, is narrowing the pool to women who finally did come around to being ready for parenthood. A smaller study of a similar time range found that only 6% of women who froze their eggs ended up using them to get pregnant. Why the sharp contrast? Many of the women had delayed not only pregnancy but also marriage: “While most still wanted to have a child ... very few had used their stored oocytes, predominantly because they did not want to be single parents.” Would these women have still chosen to prioritize their careers if they’d known marriage and children weren’t guaranteed?
Women Weren’t Born Yesterday
While egg freezing benefits may be a draw for women already looking to delay marriage and children, most women aren’t buying it. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that more often than not, women see through companies’ attempts to look supportive, signaling bad work-life balance more than a work culture that supports mothers.
Still, the cultural pressure women are under to act, work, and perform exactly like men is leading many of them to bite the bullet in an effort to have it all. Even women who strive for marriage and children are being convinced to wait and see for medicine that simply doesn’t allow the kinds of flexibility employers want it to. Many of these women never intended to be married to their careers, but they were sold a bill of goods disguised as a compensation package.
Each woman’s career is different, and there are certainly cases where her risk calculation could rule in favor of choosing egg freezing. But that calculation should be based on realistic expectations that aren’t skewed by employers’ interests, professional pressure, or unrealistic optimism. An employment market that requires the participation of women has no right demanding they become men. Rather than trying to bend women’s biology to meet the demands of the workplace, the workplace needs to evolve to be compatible with motherhood. Women shouldn’t be pressured to leave their life plans in the hands of experimental medicine.
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