I know I’m about to tread on territory that many will say I have no right to comment on given that the subject matter is exclusively a choice faced by women. However, I’m taking a chance as I felt so strongly about the latest ‘option’ being introduced.
For many years women have been working to balance the demands of family life, parenting and career. So what some will say – so have men. However, men do this in a predominantly male oriented society and without the constraints of ‘the glass ceiling’ and a biological body clock ticking.
A huge number of women manage to do this brilliantly – however, I would be the first to say that business and society generally could do a lot more to make the process more achievable and introduce greater flexibility as well as a better work/life balance.
Having said that, I recognise that businesses continue to innovate and offer new and often imaginative ways to attract and retain staff of all genders. However, I find myself struggling with the most recent offer to female employees made by Facebook and Microsoft. Both organisations have announced that they will offer a financial subsidy to female members of staff who may wish to freeze their embryos – presumably to extend their working life and level the opportunities offered to male colleagues. The offer is around $20,000 US, (£12,500). Other tech giants such as Apple have already announced their intention to follow suit in early 2015.
I include the financial sum purely to indicate how seriously the companies are taking this offer. For me the amount is not the issue – I find myself opposed to the idea on principle.
Firstly, it’s important for me to draw a distinction between freezing due to medical circumstances (ie prior to radiotherapy) and elective freezing to extend working life. I have absolutely no issue with the former and recognise that this is entirely a personal view – but it’s my personal view and I believe I’m entitled to raise some questions about the practice.
I wonder what message this sends to employees (male or female). It would appear to be saying that work is the most important aspect of your life and the part which should determine other actions. This may be true for some but I doubt it is true for all. What pressure does this now bring to those women who are demanding enough to expect equality of opportunity without deferring a family? It doesn’t take much of a jump to imagine employers pointing out (in measured terms I’m sure) that if you want promotion you may wish to consider ..
I recently visited Microsoft offices in the UK and (like many others) found catering, gaming, relaxation and even some ‘crashing’ space. Whilst these were all legitimate staff benefits, a Microsoft manager also commented when it came to game developers we really want to remove their need to go home. Everything they need is here.
The unspoken and barely concealed drive to extend working hours in this way is clearly advantageous to the employer – but I wonder what it does for the employees work life balance?
In some ways, this latest offer is very similar. I acknowledge and support any woman’s right to choose if and when to conceive but is this decision fully informed in these ‘benefit’s package’ offers. A quick call to the corporate communication/press offices makes no mention of counselling, supporting medical advice or information about the consequences of deferring conception.
Are employees advised for example that the chances of successfully conceiving reduce markedly for women between the ages of 25 and 35. If not, then is this a truly informed choice? I can see what’s in it for the company. I would hope that if these offers become more common (and personally I hope they don’t) that independent medical advice/information is a compulsory part of the decision making process.
If employers wish to attract and retain staff I would suggest that available and cost-effective childcare might have been a better starting point.