Employer-sponsored egg freezing: bane or benefit?

Employer-sponsored egg freezing: bane or benefit?

A new study has found that Australian women are divided on whether employers offering egg freezing is a valuable benefit or an inappropriate overstep into women’s private lives.

Around one in five large US companies now offer egg freezing as an employee benefit after it was introduced by Apple and Facebook in 2014.

This week, Monash University published a study examining women’s attitudes towards employer-sponsored egg freezing in Australia.

Less than half of the 656 women interviewed in Victoria (42%) believed it would be appropriate for employers to offer egg freezing as an employee benefit, 27% said it would be inappropriate and nearly a third (31%) were unsure.

“We found that while some women identified risks with employer-sponsored egg freezing, many see it as acceptable if offered under certain conditions - largely protections for their reproductive freedoms and assurances that it is offered alongside other family-friendly benefits that promote career building and family,” the study’s lead author Molly Johnston said.

“Egg freezing methods have advanced greatly in recent times and the process is considered a safe option for women. With employer sponsorship benefits, there is an opportunity to help women overcome financial barriers, increase their reproductive options and reduce the pressure experienced by women to choose between having a career and having children. This may also help women access egg freezing at an age where the procedure is more effective, increasing their chances of future conception if they require their frozen eggs.”

For these reasons, those in favour of employer-sponsored egg freezing consider it to be a step forward towards achieving greater gender equality in the workplace, particularly for young female employees.

But while some participants believed the practice would promote women’s reproductive and career options, others were concerned it could reinforce the ‘career vs. family’ dichotomy and undermine women’s reproductive autonomy by pressuring female employees to delay childbearing.

“Some felt there should be less emphasis on fertility preservation and more support for women to have children when they feel ready,” Ms Johnston said.

“Participants commented that companies with better family-friendly policies and flexible working arrangements would negate the need for delayed childbearing, or raised concerns that women might be penalised in their career trajectories if they didn’t use the technology.”

Should any employer-sponsored egg freezing policy be adopted in Australia, the study’s authors said it should promote fully informed and voluntary decision making.

“Women need to understand the benefits, risks and limitations of egg freezing, feel no pressure to take up the offer, and if they do, it shouldn’t have any negative impact on and is accompanied by other family-friendly work policies,” Ms Johnston said.

The question is whether any such policy would in reality be able to achieve the kind of informed consent the study’s authors speak of when it comes to employer-sponsored egg freezing.  

The benefits of egg freezing are already overstated and the risks and limitations downplayed by an industry that is ultimately seeking to maximise its bottom line. While the chances that egg freezing will actually result in a baby are low and the health risks associated with the hormones and fertility drugs can be significant, the marketing of the practice often tells a different, much rosier story of empowerment and safeguarding one’s future.

The mere existence and more recent aggressive online marketing of egg-freezing procedures has already exacerbated the pressures and fears women have about their future fertility, with some feminist scholars criticising the marketing of the procedure as “ultimately generating an atmosphere of increased reproductive anxiety”.

By normalising and incorporating the practice as an employee benefit into workplace culture, it is not unreasonable to expect that this could create a more subtle pressure on women to “take up the offer”. Added to such concerns, is the fact that employers have a conflict of interest to delay women having children, as it keeps them in the workforce and is arguably more economically viable than other ‘family-friendly’ work policies.

Before advancing the idea of employer-sponsored egg freezing in Australia, there needs to be a much closer examination of the practice of egg freezing itself, and its harmful impact on women, as well as a much greater emphasis on implementing family-friendly policies that support women who want to have children.