Egg freezing won’t solve our childcare problem

Women's career-or-family dilemma demands more than a technological solution.

Elsa Makouezi

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Topics Politics

Women have long been torn between prioritising their career and starting a family. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Apple’s announcement that it would start to pay up to $20,000 for women to freeze their eggs has been hailed by some as a step in the right direction. Women can, at long last, have it both ways, runs the argument, and Apple ‘should be applauded‘.

Apple’s decision to pay for the egg-freezing procedure comes as part of its support for infertility treatments. These perks, which Facebook has also adopted, are part of Apple’s attempt to attract and retain female talent in the technology sector. (As it stands, 70 per cent of Apple’s workforce are white men.) Apple’s statement read: ‘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.’

Other companies are likely to follow Apple and Facebook’s family-friendly suit. So, with greater options now available for women to plan how and when they have children, more women, keen on starting families, may still be able to pursue their careers. But while the egg-freezing technology is certainly a great benefit, Apple’s support for it is not quite as unambiguously praiseworthy as it first seems. That’s because it also serves as a mere techno-fix to the profound social problems that still exist with regards to childcare.

In other words, allowing more women to delay childbirth in order to climb the professional ladder does not solve the social issues associated with childcare, from high costs and inflexible working hours to the question of why women are still expected to be primary carers.

There is little doubt that the technology that now allows us to store human eggs for an average of 10 years is a huge boon. Like the pill, egg freezing potentially provides women with greater autonomy to choose when to start having children. Admittedly, it is still in its early stages as a procedure; according to the Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority, only 20 babies (up to 2012) have been born in the UK using the egg-freezing method. Hitherto, egg freezing has only been permitted to women undergoing chemotherapy, but it is now becoming more widespread, especially in the US, where the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has stated that the practise is no longer ‘experimental’. (The ASRM does warn that success using egg freezing is not guaranteed.)

But, as potentially beneficial as the technology is, those celebrating its advocacy by Apple et al fail to engage fully with childcare as a social problem. Expensive childcare costs, for example, are a significant issue. According to the Family and Childcare Trust, the cost in the UK of having one child in part-time nursery and one child at an after-school club averaged out at £7,549 a year — this is higher than the annual average UK mortgage repayment of £7,207. But it is not just the cost of childcare that is a problem. Long working hours, and the expectation that it is ultimately up to the woman to look after a child, also play a significant role in dissuading women from having babies during their younger years.

That more and more women look likely to undergo egg freezing helps to highlight the difficulty many women face when choosing to have families. Rather than spending all their money on fertility treatments, companies could also do a lot to facilitate childcare at work. They could even explore reforming their maternity- and paternity-leave arrangements. In the UK, for example, women are legally entitled to six weeks’ paid leave at 90 per cent of their salary, before that drops to £138.18 or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. Men are entitled to one to two weeks’ paternity leave. Compare that to Sweden, where both parents are permitted 16 months paid leave, and childcare costs are capped at no more than three per cent of monthly income. So there is certainly room for more innovative childcare policymaking in the UK and the US.

Hitting the snooze button on childbirth does present women with a tool to defy their biological clocks. But alongside the technological advances, we also need to make social advances, too.

Elsa Makouezi is editorial assistant at spiked.

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Topics Politics