Freezing the eggs: Is this for you or your boss?

So, you are young, with a great future, which you hope will include a family, but not yet. You have landed a plum job and your employer makes an offer: funding to freeze your eggs. Wow. An opportunity to climb the career ladder as you wish for as long as you wish — or manipulation by those in power?

In some ways life has never been better for working women. In South Africa where our laws recognise and support inclusion of women, including in all areas that previously were men-only stamping grounds. As an academic in the faculty of engineering and built environment, I remember not so long ago days of little more than half a dozen girls in each engineering discipline. Now the faculty buzzes with the brilliance, talent and style that the women students bring — and it is a better place for it. Some departments, for example chemical and civil engineering, have a virtually 50/50 gender balance. So, what working place will these students enter? Will it really support them or will they crash into a glass ceiling once their lives include the demands of a family?

News is out that Apple and Facebook are offering to contribute to the cost of egg freezing … or to give it the correct term for the procedure: cryopreservation. Cryopreservation has been around for a while and involves the freezing of tissue (in this case eggs) to preserve it.

It all sounds as if Frankenstein’s monster is being recreated in a laboratory, but this is not the case. Remember the days when finding out the baby’s sex in utero was considered presumptuous? It has been a wonderful development, for example, in allowing for a woman undergoing treatment for cancer to retain her option to have a baby should the chemotherapy damage her eggs. But what begins in the lab inevitably moves into the commercial sphere. One acquaintance of mine chucked her catering job — long hours, modest pay — to make a biannual trip to India to have her eggs harvested for sale.

The moral question about that is for you to think about.

And so … the train has left the station and there is no stopping it. So, the genie is out of the bottle and Apple and Facebook are capitalising on it to attract bright female candidates. Get a job with Apple and from next year this could be part of your benefit package along with parental leave and education reimbursements. Interestingly, Apple’s new human resources head is a woman (Denise Young Smith). Get a job with Facebook and they will cover two rounds of egg freezing (approximately $20 000).

My gut reaction was what a marvellous option to offer staff. Take, say, a newly graduated engineer. She spent four years working very, very hard. Now she needs to spend the same time working hard to meet her bursary, to prove herself … by which time she is around 30. She is only now able to draw a breath and make some changes. Take a new job, give time to a relationship — to start or establish one — not yet to starting a family. And to have the option to feel no pressure? Not to feel time tramping on those eggs (fertility is high in the early 20s but starts to decline, rapidly so from 35) and so to be able to plan a pregnancy with a young, robust egg is less likely to have problems.

But it also brings yet more choices and choices have their own demands. When is the perfect time for a baby to arrive? When is any relationship in the ideal state to include parenthood? If the timing turns out not to be ideal, will she feel responsible? And, does not this mean the boss can always expect that extra time, another weekend at a laptop, another business trip as, after all, who financed that perfect frozen egg? Bursaries have pay-back time, would this not too even if only obligatory?

Image – A woman enters the Eugin clinic in Barcelona, Spain, a centre that specialises in assisted reproduction on June 18, 2008. (AFP)