Over the last week or so we have seen a vibrant debate unfolding after the announcement of Apple and Facebook’s latest benefit: Female employees can store and freeze their eggs on the company’s dime so that they can postpone pregnancy beyond the phase where they might want to just focus on their careers.
I put the case up for debate in my undergraduate classes on business ethics this week. It was a fascinating experience. To start, we assessed the upshot. There is a surge of female professionals who attempt at pregnancy in their forties and thus a surge in in-vitro fertilization and a host of other avenues to late motherhood luckily provided by progress in obstetrics these days. But there is also a fair number of women who just have to suck it up that by the time they can put their head around having babies, that ship has sailed.
Here, such an offer seems to be a big benefit. You can progress in an environment where your commitment to the job is 24/7 – like your male colleagues – and still enjoy motherhood at a later stage. And your babies will be built out of genetic material that is as good as it would have been had you dared at the impossible of merging both, career and motherhood. This policy indeed provides women with more options, more choice to freely decide what to do with their lives, their careers and their aspirations at the personal level.
But upon further scrutiny, my students unearthed three major problems. The first is fairly obvious: what is offered as an ‘option’ by the company may quickly become the ‘default’. What will happen now at Google if a 32 year old women tells her boss she wants to go on maternity leave? Given the options, she makes a statement clear and loud that she prefers her personal priorities over the company’s. In organizations, rules prescribe roles. This new option potentially excludes motherhood from what a ‘high potential’, future executive at Google should prioritize in her most fertile years.
A second focus of discussion turned out to unveil the unsaid. What about the male role in child bearing and rearing? The tacit assumption of such a policy seems to be that not a single of Apple or Facebook’s male employees will ever need similar help or support in his career because of having children. In some ways then the policy just reflects rather problematic gender stereotypes: mothers get distracted from their careers by having children; fathers just carry on as if nothing has happened. Yes, there are different biological constraints on women; but having and rearing a child also totally involves the father – unless he is a complete moron (or Google and Facebook’s model employee?). Fair enough, Facebook also extends an option to male employees to freeze their sperms: after all, a significant threat to post-40 pregnancy is not the female egg, but increasingly the deterioration of male sperm at that age. But the message is the same: postpone that baby business!
Which leads to a third objection which cuts to a deeper level. The age between 25 and 35 for a woman is the phase where biologically motherhood is the most likely. It is also the phase where most women are at the prime of their adulthood: mature enough to make tough life choices on partners and lifestyles, but also vibrant and physically energetic enough to dedicate full energy to their pursuits. By offering this option, aren’t Apple and Facebook just saying: ‘Give us the best years of your life, your kids can put up with whatever is left of you at a later stage’?
One of my students put it more bluntly: ‘If you translated this policy to other forms of discrimination in the workplace, such as racial discrimination, this would amount to saying to black people: “Look, you are very welcome here, but just to make it easier, we offer you this cream that will make your skin as white as everybody else’s here.”’ This new benefit essentially offers to a woman to be just like her male colleagues, happily stripped of all her female ‘impediments’. In some ways, that is gender discrimination at its worst.
Apple and Facebook deserve praise to recognize a common and pressing problem. Admittedly, they have policies regarding maternity benefits and childcare that are better than most other American companies. But the moral imagination they applied to this particular solution falls short of the creativity that made them billion dollar companies. If they are willing to throw $20,000 at the problem, why not offer more choice to both female and male employees? The women (and men) contributing to the company are not just ‘human resources’ ready for maximum exploitation.
Artwork by Keoni Kabral, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.