Calm down, people. Yes, we all love to comment about the latest perks Silicon Valley companies are throwing at their engineers in the arms race to get and keep tech talent—particularly, female talent—but this week’s firestorm over a relatively new employee benefit has been over the top. National TV networks, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine…the story has been everywhere and often framed in outrage.
The basic news, apparently broken by NBC: Facebook since January has been covering the costs of egg freezing for female employees concerned about preserving their fertility; Apple has included the coverage in the benefits package that will start January 2015. That’s about $10,000 for the procedure, plus $500 or so for annual storage costs.
I’m guessing neither company expected this addition to their benefits package to generate so much media attention. For Apple, it’s simply one of many procedures included under its fertility coverage, which has a $20,000 cap. Facebook, with the same $20,000 cap, lists it under its surrogacy coverage. I’m guessing it cost the companies little—or more likely nothing—to include the option; the cap remains at $20,000, and it’s certainly possible that preemptive egg freezing might prevent the need for costly fertility treatments later.
While these companies are ahead of the curve, I’d give them credit—not grief—for being proactive; the “experimental” label just came off the procedure two years ago. I’m guessing we’ll soon see this option in the typical fertility package for companies that already offer that coverage.
But the fact that egg freezing is now an accepted means of preserving fertility is not what generated the media interest. Instead, it was spun as bad news—that Facebook and Apple, by offering this benefit, are sending the message to their female employees that work should come first, and family later—much later. The satirical publication The Onion, at risk of being trumped by reality here, pushed the envelope with “Facebook Offers To Freeze Female Employees Newborn Children.”
And some women who do believe Facebook and Apple were trying to do the right thing are concerned it could still go wrong. According to their thinking, with the benefit in place, women who take off time for childbearing could find less support from their colleagues and managers now that there’s a paid option to make waiting a little safer.
I don’t agree. I think the existence of this policy sends a far different message to the 20- and 30-somethings for whom parenthood is still in the future, and who likely have never thought about any kind of fertility issues: you don’t have forever. And I’m guessing that when they get that message, most of those women won’t get in line to freeze their eggs, but will start to figure out more work life balance. (Start with those free dinners—take them to go, and use the time you would have spent cooking on developing a life outside work.)
At minimum, people are saying Apple and Facebook should have simultaneously improved their maternity and paternity leave and other family-friendly policies. (I haven’t found a comprehensive list of what those are, but I know that Facebook does provide $4000 in “baby cash” for incidental expenses when an employee has a child, offers a four-month paid parental leave, and subsidizes daycare.) And those policies indeed may come: At Facebook, in particular, the workforce is young (with an average age of 28 last year), and most are barely beginning to think about the possibility of becoming a parent, much less what benefits would be helpful. I just hope the next time a Silicon Valley company considers adding a benefit targeted at its female employees, this week’s kerfuffle won’t make it think again.
Update: The latest development in egg-freezing in Silicon Valley: the egg-freezing party. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that physician Aimee Eyvazzadeh is organizing events like Tupperware parties to answer questions about egg freezing, collect party favors like Sugar Babies candies and egg-shaped soap, and score coupons for egg-freezing discounts. This being Silicon Valley, Eyvazzadeh won’t likely be the first entrepreneur who saw an idea for a startup in the egg-freezing kerfuffle.
Updated 12 November 2014
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.