Monday, October 27, 2014

How Apple and Facebook have taken gender discrimination to a new level


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.
DM
Artwork by Keoni Kabral, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

8 comments:

  1. Why are most articles on this topic make it sound like having your eggs frozen is like getting a hair cut or at most going to the dentist? The women have to go through heavy hormone treatment. Ovarian stimulation and the egg retrival procedure are risky. Not all eggs survive the freezing. Not all eggs produce good quality embryos that can be transfered. At best the pregancy success rate is 40% per cycle and that does not get better after 40. Like in IVF this presents an incredible physical and emotional stress for all parties involved. For me this whole idea is extending the battle field of economic exploitation into the female body. I only hope that the intentions were good and naive and we are simply dealing with a culture of nerdy engineers that got carried away in their quest of finding a technological solution for every human problem. I recommend to send these guys to spend a day in the waiting room of a fertility clinic and listen to the women's stories there. And while waiting they should also read Aldous Huxley's "Brave, New World" again.

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    1. Bettina,
      great comment, that adds depth to the debate. I did not get there in class, after all they are all in their late teens, maybe 20. They have no idea, and we discussed it as if this 'technocratic fix' would be a viable option. I could not agree more with you regarding the real implications of such a policy. It just goes to show how detached from the real world all the Silicon Valley execs really are.

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  2. I agree with Bettina- the fact is that in the UK only twenty babies have ever been born from frozen eggs. TWENTY. So, not only does Facebook and Google's 'well-intentioned' policy contribute to ever-high standards of 'motherhood', it is arguably peddling a lie.

    http://www.hfea.gov.uk/46.html#6

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  3. Lauren,
    Gosh (as the people here say)! I did not know that this was such a shaky option. That adds to the well founded skepticism…

    dirk

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  4. Hello, my name is Anna and I am an Msc student at the University of Nottingham (CSR course). Last week, during our business ethics class, we were asked to think of an issue where corporations exercise their power to control their employees (should managers have access to Facebook pages of their employees? should they have detailed and private information about them?). I immediately thought of this issue! It might not be strictly relevant to privacy violation and employee monitoring but I do believe this is a very subtle way of giving an "option" which is not really an option. It is a way of keeping their employees close and focused. Eventually women will have to give up a family if they want to thrive in a competitive work environment (I mean if I am a manager ready to give a promotion and I have two candidates which one will I choose? the lady who froze her egg and is therefore committed to a career in my company or the lady who didn't?). I found it to be very 1984, this "uterus control". Am I being too provocative?

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  5. I dont blame facebook for that, facebook is founded by mark but run by the people. Policies are made to ensure their security not ours. In that sense i totally agree with you.

    Regards,
    Creately

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  6. Hi Crane and Matten,
    I read your blog on “How Apple And Facebook Have Taken Gender Discrimination to a new level”. In this blog you are talking about the opportunity which leads good move to the women’s career in Facebook and Apple. I do agree with this latest benefit to the careers of women in Facebook and Apple. By this kind of benefit women can focus more on their careers by storing and freezing their eggs on company’s dime to postpone their pregnancies. In this way they can progress almost equally as the male colleagues and can still enjoy their motherhood life at the later stage of life. Career plays a very important role in the life of every person which is joined with any organization or company. This policy gives a chance to the women to live their life in the way they want and think about their careers and future life.
    In this the three major problems of this benefit are discussed.
    The first one is “What is offered as an option by the company may quickly become the default”. I do not agree with this statement that if company is providing some sort of facility or providing some policy to the workers will become as the default for the company. It depends on the management of the company that what they are providing to the workers and for what time or what extent. Apple and Facebook are the leading companies in the world and that’s why these companies need proper workforce 24/7 and providing different facilities to the workers.
    The second one is “What about the male role in child bearing and rearing”. I do agree with this statement that males also play an equal role in the life of the children. Mothers and fathers both play a significant role in the life of their children. In this modern time father’s role has changed, as in past it was said that children needs mothering and material provision to be properly raised and now father’s are as good as mother’s in mothering of a child. The one thing with which I disagree is that mother has to suffer pain for nine months to born a baby and it is drastic pain that they get at the time of delivery which makes women role more important in the life of the children. Only women have to suffer from this pain not men and the policy which Apple and Facebook are providing is only due to this pregnancy period and the time after pregnancy which a mother must have to give to her baby. Women used to feed their babies by their own body which is not possible by the men and is very important for the babies. (PRICE .W.F, 2011)
    The third objection on policy is “The age between 25 and 35 for a woman is the phase where biologically motherhood is the most likely”. I agree with the lines but in this modern world it is becoming a trend to get pregnant or born a baby after the age of 35. It was seen that now a day’s women don’t gave first birth during the most likely motherhood and the ratio is also declined. Now usually women give first birth at the age of 35 to 40 years old which is actually not a good age to give birth according to doctors. It is said that at the older age women will have risk to get many health issues like diabetes, blood pressure and heart diseases when they become pregnant. But still women give birth to the child at their older age because many are conscious about their careers and many want to life their life with freedom. “Some states saw a greater increase in first births among older women. For example, the first birth rate for women 35 to 39 in Washington D.C., New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming rose at least 40 percent from 2000 to 2012”.(Gray, Barbara Bronson , 2014)
    Thanks
    Sachin

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  7. The third objection on policy is “The age between 25 and 35 for a woman is the phase where biologically motherhood is the most likely”. I agree with the lines but in this modern world it is becoming a trend to get pregnant or born a baby after the age of 35. It was seen that now a day’s women don’t gave first birth during the most likely motherhood and the ratio is also declined. Now usually women give first birth at the age of 35 to 40 years old which is actually not a good age to give birth according to doctors. It is said that at the older age women will have risk to get many health issues like diabetes, blood pressure and heart diseases when they become pregnant. But still women give birth facebook

    ReplyDelete

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