"It's an interesting 'benefit in kind'," says Sam Coulter-Smith, master of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.
Apple and Facebook are well known for the quirky perks they offer their workers, but the tech giants' move to help pay for female employees in the US to freeze their eggs is raising eyebrows.
“I think it’s an unusual thing to do, to offer a service to people that they may not want,” says Coulter-Smith.
The motivation behind the techie giants’ concern for the reproductive lives of their employees also interests him.
“Is it because they care about their health or is it because they want 15 years of productive work out of these women before they take maternity leave?”
For its part, Apple says it “cares deeply about our employees and their families, and we are always looking at new ways our health programmes can meet their needs”.
“We continue to expand our benefits for women, with a new extended maternity leave policy, along with cryopreservation and egg storage as part of our extensive support for infertility treatments…We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.”
Facebook offers up to $20,000 (€16,000) for egg freezing for female employees. The company also offers “a host of other fertility services for male and female employees”.
Women being “serviced” by the Apple or Facebook scheme “would have eventually to undergo an IVF-type procedure”, says Coulter-Smith. “But one of the advantages would be if it was 25-year-old, not 45-year-old, eggs that were harvested.”
There are fewer chromosomal abnormalities in eggs at this stage of a woman’s reproductive life, he says. However, “there are other issues that arise for women who get pregnant later – diabetes, for example. So there are pluses and minuses.”
“Fertility preservation” aims to ensure that by removing and fertilising their eggs in their 20s women will have a better chance of becoming pregnant in their 30s and 40s.
Ostensibly there’s choice and empowerment at the heart of this corporate largesse. But is there really? Is it inspired by a benign desire to empower women to make positive reproductive choices or by a more hard-nosed intent to maximise a women’s productive years as a worker before she gets distracted by school runs and snotty kids?
Earlier this year, in Bloomberg's Businessweek, author Emma Rosenblum posited: "Imagine a world in which life isn't dictated by a biological clock. If a 25-year-old banks her eggs and, at 35, is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby. She can also hold out for the man or woman of her dreams."
Landing the chicken AND the egg, so to speak.
Naturally, the corporate world is thrilled skinny.
In the same week that millionaire champion of working mothers Gwyneth Paltrow waxed lyrical about equal pay ("very important to me as working mother") at a Democratic fundaraiser for Barack Obama, corporate America is taking one (maybe up to 20) eggs for the team.
“There is undoubtedly a huge corporate benefit to this programme,” writes Channelle Bessette for business news agency Forbes. “Apple and Facebook are less likely to temporarily lose young, hungry female employees to child-rearing. In the fierce competition for talent in Silicon Valley, Facebook and Apple were already winners, but this new move to support the family and career goals of its employees may put them even farther in the lead for attracting career-driven women.”
Ask not for whom the incentive tolls…
Still, not everyone is swept off their feet bythe Facebook and Apple offer.
“I think what women need is good family leave and parental leave. That’s what employers should do,” says Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.
On the positive side, Facebook and Apple’s offer to harvest and store employees’ eggs does point up “the very difficult choices facing women about having a family and a career”, she says. “It highlights the need for state support for families and shows the real difficulties women face if they want to progress in their career and have a family.”
The trend of women having children later in life reflects these difficulties, O’Connor says.
How comfortable women will feel getting their boss involved with the conception of their children has yet to be gauged.
O’Connor says it is important that “a woman’s reproductive choices are between her and her partner, not between her and her employer”.
Facebook will not be freezing the eggs of employees in Ireland as it is an optional benefit for US employees only.
Women in Ireland can relax: their reproductive choices remain as they are.