Egg freezing: controversial new benefit in the US workplace

Egg freezing: controversial new benefit in the US workplace

WASHINGTON - Free meals, four months of maternity leave and now egg-freezing: Facebook's latest gift to its employees has rekindled debate on the role of women in the company.

The move aims to at the very least show that "we have a lot of work to do to help companies really understand what they need to do," said Carolyn Leighton, who founded WITI, a network of women working in the tech sector.

As for paying to have eggs frozen - which allows women to put off having children - she dismissed the idea as "ridiculous." "My phone has been ringing off the hook with women who found it insulting," Leighton said.

"They felt they were just trying to deflect the conversation about equal pay for women," she said, recalling that in the United States, a woman doing the same job as a man earns 77 per cent what he does.

That is apparently not the goal of Facebook, known among companies in Silicon Valley for its groundbreaking ideas on personnel management, in offering this coverage up to $20,000 (S$25,500).

"We take care of all our employees and the people who matter most to them," said a Facebook spokesman, outlining the company's health care benefits.

There is no universal, government-funded health care programme in the United States, and most Americans get their health care from their employer.

At Facebook, the benefits include fertility treatment, surrogate mothers for homosexual couples and sperm bank access. This is all on top of three free meals a day at the office, a medical care in situ and a car wash.

'Generous' maternity leave'

"We don't have women-specific benefits. We have benefits for people at Facebook," the spokesman said, insisting that the four-month maternity leave is quite generous in a country where much shorter periods are often granted.

Apple, which will start paying for egg freezing in January, said it wanted to give its workers the power to make their lives productive as they take care of their loved ones and raise their children.

"Surely what they meant to say was, 'We want women at Apple to spend more of their lives working for us without a family to distract them,'" Jessica Cussins of the Center for Genetics and Society wrote in a Huffington Post editorial.

But Chavi Eve Karkowsky, an obstetrician in New York, wrote in the online magazine Slate that when it comes to delayed child bearing, "the two factors that come up again and again are financial stability and the availability of an appropriate partner."

Of the second factor, she added "this is the one that I think creates the egg-freezing push." The procedure that was once mostly used by people with cancer and is not harmless and its results not guaranteed.

The debate has rekindled the controversy over women in the workplace, a key issue for the women's liberation movement.

A week ago, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was forced to apologise after advising women to trust their "karma" rather than be assertive and ask for a raise.

Last year, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg published "Lean In," a memoir presented as a modern feminist manifest in which she urged women to work to succeed in juggling their careers and family life.

Women make up 50.8 per cent of the US population and 47 per cent of the workforce. But they account for only 16.6 per cent of senior positions in the workplace and 8.1 per cent of the highest paying jobs, according to the Center for American Progress.

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