I was born around the same time as Sesame Street and raised to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to: that I could be an astronaut, a police officer, a backup dancer on Solid Gold. My friend Julia and I would come home after school and sing along to "Free to Be You and Me," an album and book we'd devoured all day long at the urging of our hippie teachers. Later in college, I learned how to wield a power suit and aim for the gritty smarts displayed by Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. Hard-wired and indoctrinated by women's lib, I believed that my career was the first thing I needed to get in line—that babies would drag me down into some kind of Play-Doh-lined void.
So I acted accordingly. I also was a slow starter professionally, and I didn't really hit my stride until my late 30s. In the end my career turned out fine; I snagged a great job paying more money than I would have dared to ask for, and benefits.
But for kids, I'd waited too long. After three miscarriages, I had an inner sense that I wasn't supposed to carry my child (even though my company paid 50 percent of any fertility treatments), and that adoption was the way she would come to me. That feeling turned out to be correct. Two years later, at 42, I became mom to my daughter, and I believe that for us, this was exactly right. This is the way we were supposed to come together.
Adoption isn't the road for everyone, for a variety of reasons. Lots of women feel an essential need to conceive, and try to do so through any means available. About 10 percent—6.1 million —will have epic fertility struggles and try something like IVF, a process that is successful less than half the time and protracted to a degree that it often compromises your work life.
So now Apple and Facebook are offering egg-freezing as a benefit (along with other companies who don't think to shout about this perk). I offer them all a half-hearted thanks: a low-five, for offering this option as a way of helping to support women who aren't ready to have children yet. It's good, but it's not good enough.
I won't go into success and failure rates here; I'll just say that the process of freezing one's eggs is not exactly like taking out a popsicle from the freezer and enjoying it five years after you put it there. But when egg freezing becomes a corporate benefit, there is a clear reinforcement of the idea that having children is an unwelcome interruption to company productivity: a sentiment that, in truth, many women agree with—but shouldn't have to.
The advent of employer-sponsored egg freezing will not change the fact that women spend their working lives bracing for the perceived setback of starting a family. A 2012 Wall Street Journal article by Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, notes that single, childless women in their 20s out-earn their male counterparts—but then, after having children, nearly inevitably concede a significant amount of time and money. "The main reason that women spend less time at work than men—and that women are unlikely to be the richer sex—is obvious: children," Hymowitz writes.
Additionally, a 2012 study suggests that women generally don't pursue higher-paying consulting or other managerial jobs that they perceive would take them away from their homes for longer periods of time. "These differences are partly explained by women's preference for jobs with better anticipated work-life balance, their lower identification with stereotypically masculine jobs, and their lower expectations of job offer success in such stereotypically masculine jobs. We find no evidence that women are less likely to receive job offers in any of the fields studied," write the study's authors, McGill University's Roxana Barbulescu and the Wharton School's Matthew Bidwell. Women are more likely to take time off to raise families or take care of aging parents. They're less likely to have sufficient retirement funds, yet more likely to outlive their male partners.
With the bulk of unpaid family care falling to women—and a significant lack of workplace support for the same—there's no doubt that women will jump at the chance to freeze their eggs on the company dime. But, in the best-case scenario, let's say a woman successfully gets pregnant a decade after freezing her eggs, once she feels fully ready. And then what? She confronts the lack of employer support for everything after the positive pink line shows up on the pregnancy test..
What needs to happen is an actual, meaningful shift from companies and government entities to support women at all stages of their fertility, parenthood and their careers. Not band-aids, lip service, panaceas or halfway measures.
The strategy for a radical shift is simple: Support women and their partners, as well as same-sex couples, so that they can create strong families without the economic punishment that an inflexible, outdated 9-to-5 system presents. Most of the moves are free (encourage people to work from home) or low-cost culture changes (don't plan meetings late in the day). Some are more major undertakings that require government regulation (paid leave). All of these could be considered employee loyalty or retention strategies for all workers, including those who are child-free, and all of these function to keep people in the workforce who otherwise lack the social and economic capital to stay employed within a narrow, unforgiving paradigm. I'm certain that not all of these will apply to all jobs in all industries, and so I welcome you to add to the idea pile.
1. Paid leave: The United States has the weakest parental leave policies of all First World nations. You will hear business owners whine about how that means they can't stay open, they'll be forced to cut jobs, they can't zip up their own pants if forced to adopted stronger family-leave policies. You can hear the roar of taxpayers who already got theirs, and don't want to support others with subsidies. But Asia and Europe seem to be doing just fine. Just read how they do it in Sweden, for example, and weep.
2. Workload balancing: Management can't regularly heap extra work on child-free or empty-nester colleagues when someone has to take care of their family. The resulting resentment weakens the team and lowers the quality of work. Do some prioritizing, hire someone on a part-time basis or an intern, or re-stack the workload in a way that doesn't unfairly burden others. Not everything is a four-alarm fire.
3. Include men in the mix: Men need to lobby for and take their rightful leave: all of it. Office culture needs to come down hard on retaliation and shaming of men who do take their leaves, which can happen in barely perceptible micro-aggression levels too small and ridiculous to report. By taking leave and working a reasonable schedule, such as getting home for dinner on time, men are not only helping to support their family but taking time and money that's rightfully theirs.
4. Stop penalizing adoptive parents: I know leave varies by state and by company, but in my case, all of the other moms I knew from work had 12 weeks off, paid. I was shocked when I heard back from HR that I would be getting only six. That's because, I was told, it was six weeks for recovering from giving birth and six weeks for bonding time. HR, do you realize that this happens simultaneously? , and that six extra weeks could mean the world to some families — not to mention the extra 12 weeks that needs to be covered by daycare? (Six for the father and mother who didn't give birth)? You might see it as a medical benefit. I see it as discrimination against adoptive parents. Leave should be ample and fair for all the ways people make their families, including surrogacy.
5. Subsidized daycare and preschool: I used to work for a Fortune 200 company whose CEO would take a helicopter ride to go to a meeting an hour away because he didn't want to deal with traffic. Every time someone asked him why we couldn't have on-site day care (a benefit that people would gladly pay for) his answer was always the same: "Liability." This answer has a tendency to shut down all further discussion, and in this case it worked. The company outsourced cafeteria, maintenance, call centers and many other components of the business. But daycare? No way. There are alternative benefits that would have kept the CEO's hands clean. The company could have subsidized daycare payments for employees who make below a certain threshold (determined by family size and geography, as to take care of the swath of workers squeezed by making too much to qualify for Headstart but not enough to make their salary meaningful after paying for daycare). Staying home due to high costs of care keeps parents from gaining experience they need to move forward in their career, and tax credits could help take this specific financial burden off businesses.
6. Flexible work options: This could be job-shares, project-based work, creative scheduling, or part-time work. It could be a more flexible day so parents could get out to the gym, get groceries, or hit the dreaded DMV, and still complete a full workday: just perhaps not on the 9-5 schedule. Hyperconnectivity has allowed most office workers, at this point, to be able to do their jobs from the bottom of the sea if necessary (or more likely, home). Of course, there are some times when face-to-face is required to get a job done. But it's outdated, inefficient and unproductive to force everyone into a cubicle for their eight hours. (Here, the government has a handy toolkit for this very thing.)
7. A reasonable work day: People with kids in school are up against a ticking clock. Most preschools charge for every minute you're late. So when a workplace regularly schedules late-afternoon or early-morning meetings (or required overtime) it affects the entire family's budget and balance. Child-free workers also have a life, and a reasonable workday benefits them, too. Additionally, workers deserve a true weekend: a couple of days when their life happens, when they recharge for the next week, when they do a lot of the logistical work for keeping a home running, and when they get to remember who their kids are outside of homework and bedtime.
8. Paid family sick time. Some salaried workers can slide on this; maybe they grudgingly burn a vacation day. But hourly workers or those with no paid vacation face a tough choice: Tend to the kid, or pay a sitter (if you can find someone who will take care of a sick child on zero notice) and go to work. Either decision feels bad and is a financial penalty.
9. Dependent Care Reimbursement Account for both parents: In the event of divorce, only one parent can claim each child on his or her tax return every year. But for parents who split the cost of daycare or preschool, the one who doesn't claim the child can't claim the tax benefit or enroll in a dependent care flexible-spending account. This policy negates and refuses to recognize divorced parents who have an even custody split, share child care costs, or alternate years claiming kids as dependents.
10. A private, comfortable place to pump and store breast milk. Do you want to eat food that was packaged in a restroom? Your kid probably doesn't either. All this takes is the smallest, most insignificant conference room or office in the building, some pillows and lamps from Home Goods, a fridge. Boom: $100, and you're good. Don't give a lactating mom one more reason to want to be home.
I'm on the fence about the advent of corporate-sponsored egg-freezing. What is unequivocal good news is that every one of us has the power to change the status quo, from speaking up and asking for what we need at work to writing our Congressional Representative, Senator or the President. If you're a manager or executive, use what influence you have to make your own workplace a better place for a person with a family—and try to make that the standard throughout your company and your industry.
This country is a hotbed of ingenuity and creativity. If we want something bad enough, we make it work. So: how bad do you want it? I just lost my health insurance because my employer couldn't accommodate me dropping to part-time. I want it, and I bet you do too.
Vanessa McGrady is a Los Angeles-based writer and mama to a toddler. Her dreams are epic theatrical explorations of psyche with casts of dozens. She feels that feminism and impossible shoes can peacefully coexist. She has learned how to make something from nothing in the realms of food, decor and style. She is either in a state of profound gratitude or utter befuddlement, often simultaneously. She would very much like you to visit her blog, and hang out with her on Twitter @swerveblog.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.