Compensation & Benefits

Frozen Progress in Silicon Valley

In spite of its progressive reputation, Silicon Valley is a bit regressive when it comes to hiring women. Tech giants such as Facebook and Google have been under intense scrutiny in recent months after it was revealed that men make up around 70% of all tech employees. When you leave out non-technical jobs, the figure jumps up to around 80%. Moreover, according to a recent study by Joint Venture Silicon Valley, women entering the tech industry with a graduate or professional degree can expect to make 73% less than their male counterparts. However, a new “egg freezing” incentive offered by Facebook is drawing controversy for its attempt to level the field.

In Vitro Incentive

Facebook now covers up to $20,000 in egg freezing expenses for female employees who wish to put off starting a family to focus on their careers, an incentive that Apple will also offer starting in January. The hope is that it will help recruit more women in tech, but detractors have been quick to point out that it doesn’t address the more pressing issues of pay disparity and a general lack of diversity in the industry.

Others have taken it even further, claiming it’s nothing more than a cynical ploy to influence women who are thinking of starting a family into putting it off in favor of the companies’ interests. This perception isn’t helped when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is going around saying women should not be asking for raises.

Inexact Science

But if we pull back from the rancor of public opinion, Facebook’s egg freezing incentive is more progressive than it seems. According to recent data, women are having children later in life, and they’re having fewer of them. In fact, the number of pregnant women between the ages of 35-39 has gone up by 150% since the 1970s. “Now women’s careers are taking off in their 30s,” says Dr. Phillip Chenette of the Pacific Fertility Center, “but that’s also the time when fertility is declining”. Offering an egg freezing incentive may be a sign of the times.

There is also the fact that most of these companies already offer highly generous incentives for women who are ready to have a family now. Facebook alone offers paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare, on-site nurseries, and $4,000 “baby cash” incentives for new mothers. Egg freezing is now merely one option among many for prospective hires.

Family Time

Specialized incentives are nothing new in business, and many underestimate just how big of a decision egg freezing can be for people. It’s hardly a foolproof process – even when a woman freezes her eggs at age 25, there are only 31.5% odds that she will have a baby after three in vitro fertilizations, and the more years the eggs are stored, the less likely that becomes. It’s not as simple as Facebook forcing women to choose a career over a family.

On the contrary, companies like Facebook and Apple hope to hire a more diverse group of women, and they want the high-performers who will make a name for themselves in the industry. But the trouble with high performers is that they know they are high performers, and they expect more exotic benefits from their employers. However, loading up with incentives also has the potential to backfire. Recruiting is never an exact science, and the furor raised over Facebook’s egg freezing should prove that.

One Small Step

Critics are right to point out that the policy does not do much address the real problem of pay disparity between men and women or the lack of diversity among executives, areas where Silicon Valley is still lagging. While the policy opens new doors for women hoping to make a mark in the industry, it also reveals opportunities where more work needs to be done — even Mr. Nadella recognizes that.

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