Startup Life/Opinion/

Do women really want their employers to freeze their eggs?

It’s all the rage in Silicon Valley — and it should be in Europe, too.

Emma Phillips

By Emma Phillips

Despite the fact I’m still in my prime at 32, and that the number of women waiting until their 30s to have children has been rising with each generation, as a woman I still don’t have the luxury to ‘wait and see’ if I can have kids when I (eventually) decide I want them. 

Women have a limited number of eggs to last us a lifetime. Each year that passes, more eggs die. By the time we reach 32, our fertility starts its decline, and by 37 we have only around 3% of our original eggs left. That’s not to mention that older eggs are lower quality, which can cause health concerns.  

My lifestyle choices don’t prioritise having children straight away, yet my biological clock ticks on regardless. Millennial women’s choices are very different to their underlying biology. So if my employer offered to pay to freeze my eggs, would I sign up? Absolutely!

Following Facebook’s lead

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg famously brought the egg-freezing topic centre stage in 2014 when she subsidised the procedure for an employee with cancer. What began as a generous act grew to a benefit offered to all women in the company. The extortionate cost of egg freezing — said to be in the range of $15k to $20k per cycle — was no longer a barrier, and peers across Silicon Valley, including Apple and Google, followed Facebook’s lead.  

This led to a wave of fertility-focused startups cropping up throughout the USA, selling directly to consumers (Future Family), through employer benefit packages (Carrot Fertility and Progyny), or both (Kindbody). Cultural norms in the USA, including the confidence to speak up when help is needed, and a greater consumer uptake of health benefits, has made this movement a success. Progyny, as just one example, gained unicorn status when it went public in 2019. 

UK attitudes 

Here in the UK we’re seemingly too shy to ask for help. If a British woman didn’t have the funds to freeze her eggs whilst going through cancer treatment, would she ask her employer? I highly doubt it. 

This is because the norm in the UK is to still not think about fertility until you’re desperate for a baby, ie. you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a year. Or until you’ve had three miscarriages and the NHS will finally step in and support you. 

The stress a woman goes through during that time is horrific. Imagine the impact it has on her ability to work. An impact that could be mitigated with better support from her employer, whether that’s through egg freezing, fertility testing, increased support around pregnancy and pregnancy loss, and through menopause. 

Still, while the benefit of freezing eggs may be missing from many of the most innovative tech businesses, many UK corporations have begun to follow in Facebook’s footsteps. The likes of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs are either offering to reimburse you with a cash payment, or offering employees a flat fee for ‘making a family’, which covers wider fertility, IVF, adoption costs etc.

A hidden agenda?

Yet for all the women, like myself, who’d jump at the chance of such benefits, there are as many critics. And their reservations tend to be directed at the motivations behind such schemes. Is the movement genuinely a kind act, allowing women more freedom, or is it a way to get women to delay having children and remain loyal to their career? 

The NY Times wrote aboutthe motherhood penalty vs. the fatherhood bonus, whereby having a child is the worst career move a woman can make. Women with children are less likely to be hired for a job, and are paid less than father peers. Even women entering their 30s without children can be viewed as high risk. Employers still view fathers as more stable, given they have a family to provide for. Whereas women are deemed as distracted and less productive. 

Now more than ever, we need to be creating an environment that allows women the freedom to choose.”

This is a situation that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. A global survey found that two in five working mothers have taken, or are considering taking, a step back at work. The proportion of fathers doing the same was far lower. Now more than ever, we need to be creating an environment that allows women the freedom to choose. 

Beyond egg freezing, I want to see more benefits and solutions introduced for employees and families of all shapes and sizes. Whether that’s support for same-sex couples; tailored solutions for ethnic minorities and underserved communities; through adoption, single parents, carers, male fertility support, and everything else in-between. We’re starting to see European startups step up to support this, from fertility testing in early years (Hertility), to fertility treatments (Ovally) and much needed menopause support (Vira Health). 

Yet we’re far from where we need to be. Health is our most precious asset, and access to choice should be our most precious employee, and human, right. Otherwise, employers who don’t realise the value in this may see their best talent choosing to go elsewhere.   

Emma Phillips is partner at early-stage VC firm LocalGlobe.

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