Egg freezing may be a nice perk—but it doesn’t truly address workplace sexism

Companies must confront more fundamental inequalities to make lasting change

 
A technician opens a vessel containing women's frozen egg cells.
A technician opens a vessel containing women’s frozen egg cells. Apple and Facebook including egg-freezing in company health benefits got plenty of publicity, but does little to solve the root problems of gender imbalances in high-tech workforces. (Lex Van Lieshout/AFP/Getty)

Three point two percentage points. It’s a small number, but it constitutes a success story in the battle for workplace gender parity. Between 2008 and 2012, aluminum producer Alcoa went from having women as 15.8% of its executives to 19%. To accomplish this minor leap, it introduced mentorship programs and set clear benchmarks. It even tied 10% of its executives’ bonuses to achieving diversity targets. And this concerted, targeted effort led by CEO Klaus Kleinfeld resulted in a 3.2 percentage point bump in executives and a 2.7 percentage point increase in women in professional and plant manager roles. The company’s efforts are laudable; the results are tangible. Yet, at this pace, it will take four decades for Alcoa to achieve gender parity in its C-suite.

Depressed? Remember, this is the good news. Alcoa’s tale is held up as a wee candle flicker of hope in an otherwise depressing report on gender inequity in tech-driven sectors, including the oil and gas industry, automotive manufacturers and telecommunications companies. Released on October 23 by Catalyst, a non-profit organization focused on improving career opportunities for women, the paper surveyed nearly 6,000 MBA graduates. It found 55% of women ended up with an entry level job post-MBA, compared with 39% of men. Further, women were far more likely to leave the tech sector for another field (53% vs. 31% of men) and to leave for personal reasons, like wanting to start a family (21% vs. 12%). As the report states, “highly educated women are not opting out of the workforce; they’re opting out of tech-intensive industries.”

Which, of course, is where Facebook and Apple start paying for employees to freeze their eggs. The widely reported benefit—Apple will start covering the procedure in January while Facebook already covers it, along with surrogacy—is intended to make the companies more welcoming to women, particularly those who wish to delay starting a family to focus on their career. It’s tempting to dismiss the new perk as a smart recruitment strategy—a way to distinguish a company in a highly competitive market. True, funding egg freezing might help to attract talented workers. The problem is what happens to those employees once they’re at the company.

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Egg freezing is, by definition, a delay tactic. It allows women to stall the career complications and penalties associated with motherhood, but it doesn’t eliminate them. Further, the Catalyst report suggests that the desire to start a family is a factor that drives women from the tech workforce, but not the biggest one. Most tellingly, 83% of men surveyed said they felt “similar” to the people at their workplace, compared with just 27% of women. The real challenge for tech companies is to make women feel welcome—regardless of where they are in their personal lives. The report’s authors suggest eminently sensible measures, like recruiting senior male executives to mentor “up-and-coming women” and auditing corporate culture for its openness to women. But what’s made clear by examples like Alcoa is that it takes fundamental corporate change—not just a few added perks—to make even the smallest bit of difference.

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