Freeze your eggs, not your career progression

16 October 2014

This is the subliminal message being given to employees of Facebook and Apple in the US, following the announcement this week that these companies are giving female staff the opportunity to delay starting a family by paying for them to freeze their eggs. Whilst this is being marketed as an innovative benefit to recruit and retain top female talent, the clear underlying message being given to female employees is that they should wait until they have reached a certain level of seniority in their career before having children, otherwise their career promotion prospects are likely to be damaged.

Other benefits that companies offer, such as subsidised gym membership, personal training sessions, in-house yoga, massage, nutritionist advice etc positively encourage employees to lead a healthy lifestyle. By offering this benefit, the company is actively encouraging female employees to delay having children. This is very different to companies contributing towards the medical expenses of employees seeking fertility treatment.

Women should have free choice as to if and when they decide to have children. Career progression prospects should be based on merit alone, not on an employee’s age and parental status.

Facebook and Apple may well end up with a number of disgruntled female employees who choose to freeze their eggs and put off having children until later in life, on the basis that they believed that doing so would mean that they would progress in their career. If they do not progress to the level they were hoping, they are likely to be unhappy both professionally and in their personal lives. Medical opinion is that freezing one’s eggs is no guarantee of fertility and the older one gets, the more difficult they may find it to physically carry a child and cope with the demands of childbirth and having a young family.

Will Facebook and Apple require the substantial cost of freezing a female employee’s eggs to be repaid to them, if the employee chooses not to return to work after maternity leave or leaves within a short period of having returned to work? Thought also needs to be given to whether it would amount to sex discrimination not to contribute towards the cost of fertility treatment for male employees experiencing fertility problems.

Younger women who choose to have children naturally at a younger age in their 20s to mid-30s may well start asking for benefits of equivalent value to be paid to them and there may be an age discrimination argument they could advance to support this.

What happens in the US is often replicated shortly afterwards in the UK and it has been reported that these companies are looking at introducing the same benefits in Northern Ireland shortly. Some law firms are also apparently considering introducing such “benefits” soon. However, serious thought needs to be given to whether this is a genuine “benefit” and who will benefit most from this, the employer or female employees? Further how would this fit with the Government’s family friendly policies, aimed at enabling working parents to have it all, by combining family life with work commitments and a rewarding career, such as shared parental leave and the extension of flexible working to all employees?

For further information, please contact a member of the employment law team.

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