Kathryn Nawrockyi, Opportunity Now director at Business in the Community.
I have talked more in the last few days about IVF and HRT, ovaries, eggs and ovulation than I would ever normally choose to. And for once it’s not because when I meet up with friends these days, this is their conversation at the dinner table.
This week Facebook and Apple have hit the headlines with their latest employee benefit – offering to pay for their female staff in the US to have their eggs frozen, so they can delay child-rearing until a more stable point in their careers. Unsurprisingly, the media has exploded with conflicting opinions of whether this is a victory for equality or a gimmick that borders on creepy.
I have no doubt that some women will feel that this is a win – that it gives them the choice at least, to allow just a little more time and space to focus on their career, before maybe one day taking a step back to make way for family. But I fear that this is another classic example of ‘choice’ being used to control women, not liberate them.
When is this ‘perfect time’ for women to have children? When are we supposed to delay until? When do our careers become more stable? Do we actually believe that it will be easier to return to work after maternity later in our careers, the point at which for many women the additional responsibility of caring for elderly parents kicks in? The ‘perfect time’ is a myth.
“ We don’t need to fix the women, we need to change the culture. ”
Personally I find the potential for a company to have this level of influence over its employees’ choices about childbirth deeply unsettling, and the coercive power of this so-called ‘job perk’ is as unpredictable as it is irresponsible. It’s a peculiarly ‘tech’ solution to a problem that probably requires a different skills set to solve. It fails to address the root causes of inequality at work – it simply numbs the symptoms, it doesn’t fix the problem. And it sends a clear message to women that their biology is incompatible with the way work and companies are structured.
Facebook and Apple have said that the policy is designed to attract and keep female talent by helping them avoid the choice between motherhood and professional progression. Which then begs the question: why, in 2014, are success and motherhood still seen as mutually exclusive rather than compatible? If we really want to give women a choice, how about investing in making agile work available for all employees. Or supporting parents with the crippling financial cost of childcare. Or incentivising male employees to take more paternity leave.
For me this reinforces one of the key themes from our Project 28-40 research – we don’t need to fix the women, we need to change the culture. Women who responded to the project told us they wanted a lot out of their lives, including children and career success. However, what also came through loud and clear was that the current set-up isn’t working. Amongst female non-parents, 81% thought having children would affect their career progression. It’s clear that, for many women, having children is seen as career suicide – no matter what age you are.
Meanwhile, fatherhood and career success have been compatible for centuries; in fact research has shown having a child actually enhances men’s career progression, and that fathers get paid more than men without children. But too often the default assumption is that it will still be mum leaving early to do the school run or taking time off when their child is ill. And men want change too; a recent study by Working Families found that fathers aged 26-35 found their family life was most impinged upon by work, increasing resentment towards their employers.
“ I am all for women having the choice – to choose when they focus on career, to choose when they have a family. But this corporate gimmick is a false choice, a stranglehold to keep women in their roles for longer with potentially harmful consequences. ”
What we need, then, is for employers to design jobs so women don’t feel like they have to make this choice and to create inclusive work environments that support mothers and fathers. This includes challenging the stigma surrounding flexible working for all employees, so women (and men) have the choice of how, when and where they work in a way that suits them and meets the needs of the business. In order to do this, we need clear leadership from the top of organisations, with senior leaders of both genders setting the example by embracing flexible working and providing support to line managers to help them recognise when their team members’ needs and aspirations are changing.
I am all for women having the choice – to choose when they focus on career, to choose when they have a family. But this corporate gimmick is a false choice, a stranglehold to keep women in their roles for longer with potentially harmful consequences. Personally I think it is a flash in the pan – at least I hope so. At least then the dinner conversation can return to normal. Sort of.