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Silicon Valley Companies Add New Benefit For Women: Egg-Freezing

A technician opens a vessel containing women's frozen egg cells in April 2011 in Amsterdam. (AFP/Getty Images)

In the Silicon Valley arms race to lure the top talent with the best benefits, Facebook and Apple are adding egg freezing for female employees. The two companies may be the first to pay for the procedure for women who choose it to delay childbearing.

The addition of egg-freezing to the benefits plan comes as tech companies face mounting pressure to hire more women. And it's a perk that some women may find attractive.

Brigitte Adams started a community forum called Eggsurance, where women can share information about the procedure. Adams paid for the procedure herself. "I froze my eggs at 39," she says, "and there was nothing out there that was specific to egg-freezing."

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine only lifted the experimental label from egg-freezing two years ago. Adams, a marketing executive at a tech startup, says the addition of coverage for the procedure definitely would give extra weight to a job offer.

"I would equate it to reimbursement for an MBA program," she says, "or adoption assistance, or, you know — it's not the be-all and end-all, but it's definitely a nice perk."

And an expensive one — the benefit covers $20,000 worth of procedures, typically two rounds of egg retrieval. Then again, rich Silicon Valley companies are notorious for high-end benefits that can include gourmet food, dry cleaning and massages.

Cali Williams Yost, who consults with companies about work/life balance, says covering the cost of egg-freezing as an elective procedure could help keep some good female employees. (The benefit also is available to employees' spouses.)

"By offering to pay for women to freeze their eggs, I think Silicon Valley is responding to what some of the young, talented women in their workforce want," she says.

But, Williams Yost says, enabling female employees in particular to delay having children isn't all that's needed: At some point, those workers will have children and also will need the right benefits then.

"They are going to need the direct supports, the flexibility, the caregiving," she says, "leaves and benefits that actually help them combine work and life. Egg-freezing is a great small piece of a much bigger puzzle."

Facebook told NPR that its offering this benefit because employees were asking for it. In a statement, Apple also said it wanted to make certain its female employees could "do the best work of their lives." Both companies have paid parental leave policies and on-site health care. Facebook also subsidizes day care costs.

But Marcy Darnovsky, executive director at the Center for Genetics and Society, says that expanding benefits to cover egg-freezing could put pressure on women to delay childbearing so that their employer can get more hours out of them. Darnovsky is an advocate for the responsible use of reproductive technologies.

"When you're in a situation of your employer offering you a choice," she says, "you really have to be careful that you're distinguishing between something that's an expanded option and something that's actually subtle or even explicit pressure to do what your employer wants you to do."

But Darnovsky says there is also a virtue in egg-freezing because it does give women more choices and control over their lives.

Egg-freezing is no guarantee of having a child, though. Studies indicate that women who have three rounds of egg retrieval at around $10,000 per round have a slightly more than 30 percent chance of giving birth if they are 25 or younger when the eggs are frozen. The closer women get to age 40, the lower the likelihood of success. If women limit themselves to the two rounds of egg retrieval covered by the new benefits, that also will reduce the odds.

Eggsurance forum founder Brigitte Adams froze her eggs when she was 39. She says she didn't do it for career reasons, but to give herself as many options as she could given the circumstances of her life, and that that's why many women she knows did the procedure.

"We're doing it maybe because our life didn't take the course we expected it to, she says, "and we're older and we want to have children and, hey, there's this new technology that may help us do that."

Adams is currently single, and she says freezing her eggs has made it easier for her to look for the right partner without feeling as much pressure from her biological clock.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Along with the many perks Silicon Valley companies are known for, Apple and Facebook will now cover the expenses of female employees who want to freeze their eggs to delay childbearing. They're among the first major companies to do this. And as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, it comes as tech companies actively work to recruit more women.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Even three years ago, the idea of women freezing their eggs while they were still young enough to be fertile was pretty unusual.

BRIGITTE ADAMS: I froze my eggs at 39. And there was nothing out there that was specific to egg freezing.

SYDELL: Brigitte Adams started a community forum called Eggsurance, where women can share information about the procedure. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine only recently lifted the experimental label from egg freezing. Adams, a marketing executive at a tech startup, says the addition of coverage for the procedure would definitely give extra weight to a job offer.

ADAMS: I would equate it to reimbursement for an NBA program or adoption assistance or, you know - it's not the be all and end all. But it's definitely a nice perk.

SYDELL: And an expensive one. In all, the process can cost upwards of $20,000. Tech companies have been facing a barrage of criticism about the lack of women employees. One way rich, Silicon Valley companies keep employees in general is with perks - gourmet food, dry-cleaning, massage. Cali Williams Yost, who consults with companies about work-life balance, says covering the cost of egg freezing as an elective procedure could help keep some good women employees.

CALI WILLIAMS YOST: By offering to pay for women to freeze their eggs, I think Silicon Valley is responding to what some of the young, talented women in their workforce want.

SYDELL: But Williams Yost says enabling female employees in particular to delay having children isn't all that's needed. At some point, these workers will have children and need the right benefits.

YOST: They are going to need to the direct supports, the flexibility, the caregiving, leaves and benefits that actually help them combine work and life. Egg freezing is a great, small piece of a much bigger puzzle.

SYDELL: Facebook told NPR that it's offering this benefit because employees were asking for it. In a statement, Apple also said it wanted to make certain it's women employees could do the best work of their lives. Both companies have paid parental leave policies, on-site health care. Facebook subsidizes health care costs. But Marcy Darnovsky says expanding benefits to cover egg freezing could put pressure on women to delay childbearing so that their employer can simply get more hours out of them. She is executive director at the Center for Genetics and Society, which advocates for the responsible use of reproductive technologies.

MARCY DARNOVSKY: When you're in a situation of your employer offering you a choice, you really have to be careful that you're distinguishing between something that's an expanded option and something that's actually subtle or even explicit pressure to do what your employer wants you to do.

SYDELL: But Darnovsky believes that there is also a virtue in egg freezing because it does give women more choices and control over their lives. Eggsurance forum founder Brigitte Adams says she and the other women she knows didn't freeze their eggs for career reasons.

ADAMS: We're doing it because maybe our life didn't take the course we expected it to. And we're older, and we want to have children. And hey, there's this new technology that may help us do that.

SYDELL: Adams is currently single, and she says freezing her eggs has allowed her to look for the right partner without feeling the pressure of her biological clock. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: We're going to talk just a bit more about this idea that a company might help women delay childbearing with our digital culture correspondent Laura Sydell, who is speaking to us from San Francisco, and NPR's Jennifer Ludden, who covers work and family issues for us. Good morning, Jennifer, Laura.

SYDELL: Hi.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Jennifer, could I start with you? Presumably, this is part of the war of perks, ever more benefits offered employees by these very competitive companies, Apple, Facebook. But can we have a reality check? Who else offers egg freezing as a benefit?

LUDDEN: It's not clear if anyone does. I've heard references to maybe some big banks or law firms. But no one I've spoken with has heard other companies be so open about this. But the big reality check is that most companies don't cover any infertility treatments, let alone this cutting edge procedure. So you have this huge inequality where, when someone faces infertility, the people who are able to kind of treat that and overcome it almost largely comes down to who can shell out tens of thousands of dollars. So here, you can argue that, you know, Apple and Facebook are leveling the playing field for their employees. And it's a great thing for them. But in the big picture, you're kind of deepening this big divide where this is one more thing. Having children later in life is something that a lucky few can have, and most don't.

WERTHEIMER: Laura, now, I could teach this idea round or teach it flat. I mean, this could be a generous offer to working women who are trying to make sensible career decisions. Or it could be a nasty warning that pregnancies and babies and advancement in high tech don't really go together.

SYDELL: That is a real fear. I mean, these companies are dominated by young men. And they're being criticized for it. And part of the environment there is there's a real emphasis on working hard. They don't really want you to go home. That's why they have some of the perks. They have lunch. They have massage. They have dry-cleaning. They have all these things. And so there could be a message being sent to women that will actually make them more uncomfortable in this environment rather than more comfortable. It all depends on how it's implemented, on what the culture is like in these companies and how sincere they are, right now, about making it a place that's welcoming to women.

WERTHEIMER: Who stands to gain, the employee or the employer?

SYDELL: (Laughter). You know, that's a big question. On the one hand, I want to say this gives women options. And anything that gives women more options is a good thing. And again, I think it's really going to depend on whether or not these companies are able to make women feel comfortable not only not having children, but having children. Do they have day care? Do they have policies that make women feel comfortable taking a leave while they're pregnant and not feel as if they're going to get pushed off a career track?

LUDDEN: And can I just say that, you know, there is a lot of frustration out there. Many women just feel that all the pressure on the whole balancing work-family life thing falls on the women. They want changes that puts more of the pressure on men, that gets men thinking about, how can I make this work? How can I make my home life and family life fit into my work life? And I think a lot of women will see this as just one more step that puts even more pressure on the woman to make it work and takes the pressure off men and off the workplace.

WERTHEIMER: Jennifer, let's get back to the science. When a woman has stashed her frozen eggs and then decides she wants to use them, how does that work? Does that work?

LUDDEN: Good question. It may, may not. So they - she will have to go back and have in vitro fertilization, another pricey procedure, which I guess Facebook and Apple cover. Most companies do not. There's a lot of variables. The average success rate for IVF is 30 percent. You may have to do it more than once. And success rates go down as a woman ages. So if she has delayed her childbearing, she's going to be older. And it's going to be harder to work. Even if this works, experts say women need to understand there's all kinds of causes for infertility. It could be something else with the woman. It could be with the male partner. They hope that this whole conversation we're having is a teachable moment - not just about the possibilities of egg freezing, but really, women need to understand its limitations.

SYDELL: And you know, one could argue, really, that having children when you're younger and then putting your efforts into work later is another way to go too, that delay isn't necessarily the better decision. It does come back to women being able to have different options and being aware of the likelihood and the science and that this isn't a panacea.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Laura Sydell and NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thank you both very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: You can continue this conversation with Laura Sydell and Jennifer Ludden at 11:30 Eastern time on Twitter. Use is the hashtag, #NPReggfreeze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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