The problems of reconciling work and family in the US run much deeper than ‘freezing eggs’

24 Oct 2014


We found out this week that Apple plans to offer up to $20,000 to its female employees to allow them to freeze their eggs; Facebook already does so. The rationale provided by the two tech companies for the policy was firmly grounded in the idea of empowerment: that the money will allow women to delay childbearing, if they choose, so that they can focus on their career without worrying about that ever-ticking biological clock that women are so frequently reminded of. “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”, read their statement. Both Facebook and Apple made it clear that they hoped the policy would encourage women to work for them, as they try to change their rather lopsided workforce (69% of Facebook’s employees are male, and so are 70% of Apple’s staff.) It is not the only family-friendly initiative offered by either company, but it is certainly the most controversial.


There are many who see the move as a positive one that will help women to navigate the thorny issue of how to ‘have it all’: career and family. One article in Time magazine suggested that the move would be “the great equalizer”, with frozen eggs giving women “peace of mind” that they can focus on their career now without having to worry about that ticking clock. Shane Ferro, over at Business Insider, agreed: the scheme will give women the financial ability to control when they have children, and no, this doesn’t challenge the culture of “overwork”, but whilst work continues to dominate over family, Ferro argued, this is a practical and helpful idea.


Others have been much more skeptical. In the Guardian, Harriet Minter lamented what she sees as the reemphasis on work over family implicit in the policy, arguing that is less empowering and more threatening: women ought to put their careers first. Nitasha Tiku, for ValleyWag, concurred. “The perk enforces Silicon Valley’s obsessive work mentality”, she wrote, and the choice that it supposedly offers women is, in reality, an “illusion”. In other words, women may feel pressured into delaying starting families.



It is an interesting and important debate that raises a lot of questions about the modern workplace, work culture, family, and the problems of trying to reconcile these areas of life. Or, rather, it would do if only the discussion had moved out of Silicon Valley. Despite the many column inches the initiative has received, there has been one glaring omission from most articles, and that is this: it is no surprise, and no coincidence, that the two companies advocating the scheme are American. It is only by understanding how family-unfriendly the US is that we can begin to challenge the problems of the status quo that this policy has accepted as its basic premise.


Family-unfriendly? The US? That may not sound quite right. And in terms of its political culture, it’s not: woe betide the politician who doesn’t advocate and represent ‘family values’ (or, as the case more often seems to be, woe betide the politician who doesn’t apologise for their lapses in ‘family values’ and beg forgiveness). In terms of policy, however, it’s a different story, and this affects Americans both inside, and outside, the offices of Facebook and Apple.


The US provides some of the least support for combining work and family of any state around the world. In June The Atlantic noted that the US provides no compulsory paid maternity leave; offers no government benefits for new parents, and doesn’t require employers to do so either. In these ways, America is on a par with Suriname and Papua New Guinea. It’s very different from Europe, where, in many countries, paid leave of up to a year is fairly common, and paid paternity leave is being increasingly state-incentivized. Even employees of the US federal government are not entitled to any paid family leave per se. The situation isn’t much better for workers in the American private sector, either. What proportion of them has access to paid family leave? Eleven per cent. No, really.


Having children can also have significant negative consequences for American women, as sociologist Joya Misra noted in the New York Times this week: one article that did try to explore broader issues related to the egg-freezing debate. Each additional child costs a woman in the US, on average, around four per cent of her salary. As has been demonstrated in various studies, as well, women are more likely to face discrimination if their CVs imply that they are parents; whilst if a man’s CV suggests he has children, he is likely to be paid even more. Of course, unequal pay and sex-based discrimination are hardly unique to the United States. (During a recent conversation with another woman about moving into the world of work once I eventually finish my PhD, I was advised not to wear my engagement ring in job interviews, just to be on the safe side.) The problem is, though, that these issues are exacerbated in America by the fact that so little help is mandated by the state for new parents. As Misra shows, in countries where women receive paid maternity leave of between six months and one year, the wage penalty that women face for having children is less. The same is true in countries that offer paid paternity leave.


Let’s not forget that the American healthcare system adds a further layer of complexity to navigating work and family. Pregnancy and birth are not free in the US, as they are in the UK. Last year, it was estimated that the average bill for pregnancy, delivery, and postnatal care in the US is around $30,000. By way of comparison, the Washington Post noted that the bill for the Duchess of Cambridge, who gave birth in a private maternity ward, was estimated to be around half as much. Insurance may cover some of these costs, but not all of them. Not only this, but there is a cost to family planning as well. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the average American woman, assuming she wishes to have two children, will still need to spend some thirty years of her life using contraception. And, again unlike in Britain, contraception costs money: an IUD, for example, can cost between $500 and $900. As a result of Obamacare, women should be able to receive contraception through their health insurance without paying extra; but thanks to various legal challenges this remains complicated, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in the Hobby Lobby case. 


These are the real issues that affect women right across the United States, and these are the issues that underlie the problems that Facebook and Apple think they are helping to solve. If we want to try and help women, and help families, combine the pressures of modern life, then it is these issues that have to be dealt with. Offering egg freezing may be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t solve the root problems that exist in the US.


By Alice Lilly


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