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Frozen progress: beyond the egg-freezing debate

Behind the headlines of Silicon Valley companies offering female employees the chance to freeze their eggs lie more fundamental unresolved questions of gender in the workplace – and the role of work in our lives.

The headlines that blossomed across the internet at the news that Apple and Facebook will offer their female employees the chance to freeze their eggs were as expected as a change of season.  The news combined the cultural fascination with the employment practices of Silicon Valley – a media fixation for the last two decades, from Douglas Coupland’s 1995 ‘Microserfs’ to Sheryl Sandberg’s 1%-feminist ‘Lean In’ – and an obsession with the ‘work-life’ balance of professional women, frequently dissected by publications such as The Atlantic, largely through the erroneous framing that the ‘work-life balance problem’ only affects or interests women.

Microscope-taken image. Human follicle and ovary. Ed Uthman/ Flickr. Some rights reservedThe public conversation it triggered is perhaps more interesting than the news itself, given that most of us work for neither Apple nor Facebook – from the testimonies of women who have had their eggs frozen emphasising that the procedure currently has an unimpressive success rate – only 2,000 babies have so far been born through egg-freezing – to the first-person comment pieces where women of childbearing age thought aloud over whether egg-freezing would be an option they’d consider. 

The American location of the story added a dimension often glossed over as media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic thought aloud about what egg-freezing might mean: this is the motherland of privatised healthcare, in which the procedure was being offered by companies to their employees – by their own admission, in “an effort to attract more women.”  The question, much mulled over in the media in the last few weeks, of whether women in their 20s and 30s should consider freezing their eggs in order to have more control over their reproductive choices, would look very different if this was a procedure on offer for free from a country’s public health service. 

Egg-freezing, as a medical procedure, is no more freakish or aberrant than IVF, or anaesthetic – a technique that allows us to do something with bodies that we previously couldn’t.  As a medical procedure – considered outside of the context of its positioning as an ‘employee perk’ by Apple and Facebook – egg-freezing isn’t categorically different from IVF or the contraceptive pill.  It allows women more control over their reproduction, enabling them – the success rate of the procedure notwithstanding – to better plan their pregnancies in light of the other, changing factors at play in their professional and personal lives. 

Laboratory worker uses a microscope, computer monitor and syringe to fertilise an egg. Laboratory fertilisation of an egg. Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images . All rights reserved. It is the role of the private companies, Apple and Facebook – programmed like an organism to preserve itself above all – that makes the prospect of ‘egg-freezing for female employees’ ghoulish and Atwood-dystopia-seeming.  As if, in order to sublimate yourself entirely to the company, you offer up not only your identity (through corporate ‘personal branding’), your personal life (through working hours that would be illegal in much of Europe), but even submit your body to the corporation you serve.  “Delay having children to donate your best years to our brand” is the ethos behind the initiative, and one that has the corporation – not the lives of women and their families in all their humanness and complexity – as its primary concern.

It’s also striking that the news of egg-freezing as an Apple and Facebook employee ‘perk’ stirred up the public conversation among feminists about the provisions employers should provide to enable a ‘work-life’ balance.  There are biological-determinist undertones to the idea that the way to make women happy is to facilitate their ability to both reproduce and work for a corporation – which reduces women to their bodies, and operates on the erroneous assumption that all women desire to have biological children.  And that the ‘work-life balance’ can be solved by performing an operation on women, rather than addressing our culture’s relationship with work, and how it affects all our lives – whatever our gender, whether we have or want children or not.

At a time when women’s economic and political rights are being corroded by austerity measures in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, the preoccupation with egg-freezing veered towards an irrelevant liberal feminism blind to the different realities of women’s lives, particularly women outside of elite industries like Silicon Valley start-ups.  It’s the power-blind liberal feminism of Naomi Wolf’s recent book ‘Vagina’, in which women are reduced, in a mirror to their role under patriarchy, solely to the body (as Laurie Penny wrote at the time in response to Wolf’s ode to vaginas: “the most politically important part of any woman's body is still, is always, her brain”). Its lack of recognition of social, economic and political power imbalances renders it a useless lens for understanding gender, and how power and powerlessness thread through our lives. 

By positioning itself as an initiative that would give female employees greater ‘choice’ – American corporate culture offers up the employee perk of ‘freedom’ even as it coaxes you to spend every waking minute serving your company – the egg-freezing proposal is also laced with the pernicious and faintly Ayn Rand-ish undertones of Sheryl Sandberg’s much-discussed ‘Lean In.’  By encouraging women to ‘lean in’ the workplace,  Sanberg’s manifesto placed the onus on women to modify and contort themselves to capitalism’s demands so that they – as individual women, as employees – can ‘succeed’.   Never mind that a female worker with no job security and on minimum wage can hardly ‘Lean In’ her way to success – or even out of poverty – Sandberg (and much of the cultural conversation triggered by the news of Silicon Valley’s ‘egg-freezing’ initiatives) encourage women to contort their lives rather than dismantle the intersecting social injustices that stymie progress towards equality.

Like Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, the offer of egg-freezing by Silicon Valley companies operates on the false-neutrality of individualism in which, once the woman has been offered ‘choices’, she has only herself to blame – if she doesn’t freeze her eggs on time, if she doesn’t ‘Lean In’ enough.  Like the women of the mid-century-set ‘Mad Men’ tightrope-walking the various unsustainable roles they’ve been confined to hold their breath and perpetually pose in, this strain of capitalist-feminism tells women they can ‘have it all’ if they do it all, even as the roles they’re offered up are contradictory or unviable – and if they don’t succeed the burden of the failure falls on them as individuals, not on the structural imbalances of the workplace or society.

Whatever the success-rates of egg-freezing as a procedure – and many have sought in recent weeks to caution that the procedure is an unreliable way to have children – the news itself was merely a gimmick for the companies involved.  Does freezing eggs magically reverse the bro-y, male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley, the unfriendly work hours for anyone (of any gender or identity) who wants to have a life that isn’t completely under submission to the company they work for? Does the medical procedure of egg-freezing magically dismantle ingrained sexist attitudes in the workplace (which have mutated into their own virulent strain of tech-sexism in the start-up world), offer flexible working hours, affordable childcare?

In the absence of substantive initiatives required to bring about gender equality – in the workplace, in all our lives in all their complexity – egg-freezing is useless not because the medical procedure frequently fails but because it changes nothing fundamental, for women who wish to both have children and work, or for the increasing encroachment of work on our lives and identities. 

Shortly after the announcement that it would offer its female employees the ‘perk’ of egg-freezing, Facebook made headlines again last week, for banning photos of childbirth from its site.  For all Silicon Valley’s sleek initiatives, built on the neoliberal workplace’s perpetual false promises of ‘choice’, it suddenly becomes so squeamish in the face of the unsterile complexities blossoming out of people’s real bodies and real lives.

 

 

About the author

Heather McRobie is a novelist, journalist, and former co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She has written for Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Foreign Policy, amongst others. She researches and lectures on public policy at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and previously studied at the University of Oxford, University of Bologna and University of Sarajevo. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature explores the issue of hate speech in literature and the philosophy of freedom of expression.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie 

 


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