Should a workplace ever get involved in a woman’s decision to freeze her eggs?
Liz, August 8, 2017
In the early 90s, I started going for my first professional job interviews. Society – and the laws that governed it – were different then.
“You’d better not have plans to get married. Married women go off and have babies – pain in the arse…” was a comment as I interviewed for my first job as a reporter. When I moved on to another newspaper a couple of years later, I got the same spiel. And at the interview for my third job, it was the same again – and it was at the BBC, can you believe?
The message was very clear. If you want to get on, don’t have babies. I remember one desk editor saying to me when I asked where all the other women were (I was one of about ten women at the time in a newsroom of a couple of hundred): “Stupid women and their stupid babies get in the way of real work being done.”
It was blatant and it was allowed. And I really enjoyed my work and wanted to do it – so I kept my head down and worked the kind of stupid hours that work wonderfully well as contraception.
Thankfully, things have changed. Or at least I thought they had.
Now it’s not so blatant. And it’s not allowed. But it’s still there. An increasingly more common item on the shopping list of workplace benefits is egg freezing. Facebook and Google started offering it a couple of years ago – and others have steadily followed suit. If you work for these companies and you’re in your 20s or 30s, your employer will pick up the £3k+ tab for extracting your eggs from your ovaries and keeping them on ice until you’re “ready”.
But there are three big problems with this:
1) Putting eggs on ice and going through IVF is no walk in the park – and the success rates for it are dismal
2) British women have very little access to accurate information about reproductive health
3) An offer of egg freezing feels horribly similar to being told you can’t get on if you have kids
It’s not a magic bullet
If you’re an HR professional and you’re currently considering whether egg freezing belongs on your list of benefits, please take a moment to consider what it entails.
If you only have recent news reports and magazine articles to go by, you may be under the impression that having eggs removed is a quick, painless procedure that takes a few minutes and can happen in a lunchtime. Like having a filling, maybe.
Let me call big, fat, hairy bullshit on this.
Having been through several (unsuccessful) rounds of IVF, I’d like to spell out a little more vividly what it involves. And let’s be clear here, egg extraction is the first stage of IVF. So if you’re offering egg freezing, you’re effectively offering the first stage of IVF. When your employee decides to have a go at using the frozen eggs, she’ll need to go through the other half of IVF (presumably at her own expense) at a later date.
So anyway, this is how egg extraction works. The woman who wants to have her eggs put on ice goes for a handful of blood tests and STI tests. The former is to see what her hormone levels are. The latter is to rule out the possibility of a disease affecting a future pregnancy – or having an effect on general fertility.
She will also have scans… so many blinking scans. All transvaginal. All with a fertility doctor assessing the suitability of her ovaries and uterus for the procedures that lie ahead.
Based on the results of the tests, she’ll be given a regime of hormones to take. Usually, she’ll need to prepare and inject these into her belly fat for a few days at the beginning of her cycle. These drugs do two things – they stimulate your ovaries to prepare many, many more eggs than they would normally. They also prevent your ovaries releasing the eggs as they would normally – so they prevent ovulation (because if you ovulate the eggs you can’t collect them to freeze them).
Not really fit for work for a while
During this period of egg preparation, bloating is normal. Water retention can be horrendous. I started the process (admittedly in my 40s, and so needing higher doses of hormones) a UK size 12. By egg collection day, I had to borrow a friend’s size 22 clothes. When I rolled over in bed, my belly followed a split second later, sloshing as it wobble-landed onto the mattress.
You feel like shit. You’re huge. Your belly jiggles. You’re nauseous. Weepy. Why? Because you’re taking monster loads of hormones.
And to make things just a little more exciting in my case, I’m terrified of injections – but I had to keep forcing myself to do them. Sometimes three at a time.
Then, with precision timing, you inject yourself with a hormone that triggers the eggs to prepare for ovulation. You get yourself to the clinic and undergo general anaesthetic so the operation to remove your eggs can happen.
This involves a sharp, narrow tube being passed through the vaginal wall into the ovary, with the doctors watching everything on ultrasound. Then the eggs are sucked out through the tube and taken away for freezing.
You’re wheeled off to a recovery area to sleep for an hour or so – and then they tell you to take it easy and not to go swimming for a couple of weeks.
The next day, you get a call from the clinic telling you how many eggs they retrieved, and how many successfully made it through to being frozen.
You are still full of hormones. You are weepy, emotional. And you face the possibility that none of your eggs or only a few of your eggs will have made it.
IVF is a numbers game. You need to start with a lot of eggs to stand any chance of making it all the way through to actual pregnancy. So maybe your doctors manage to extract 12 eggs. A couple might die in the freezing process. Later on, when the making babies bit of IVF begins, half the eggs may not make it through fertilisation. So out of your original 12 eggs, you may only have five that fertilise. And then, through the next five days, more will perish – either not developing at all or developing weirdly, so the clinic bins them. Out of your original 12 eggs, you may end up with two or three five-day blastocysts. Most clinics will tell you your chances of success with these blastocysts are somewhere around the 40%-60% mark. But this isn’t an individual’s chances of success – it’s the clinic’s.
So, HR people, this is just a little reminder that just because you agree to pay the £3k for freezing eggs, it in no way guarantees a future pregnancy. Nor indeed, that the woman you’re gifting this to is being allowed to “keep her options open”.
The IVF numbers game is an interesting one, because unless you’ve ever been through the process, you are very unlikely to know about it. In fact, the general population tends to know very little about reproductive health at all.
Very little information available
A lot of British women (and their partners) know very little about the ways their bodies work. When you’re young, you’re given one pervading message: “Here are all the ways not to get pregnant.”
Then you get your head down, work hard – and maybe pick up bits and pieces of information from news sources, women’s magazines and friends.
Unlike other European and Western countries, we do not have the opportunity to see a gynaecologist once a year. If you lived in Spain, Greece or France – to name just a few – you’d visit your gynaecologist in exactly the same way as you visit your optician or your dentist every year. You get a check-up, you can ask questions, you can check your hormone levels and understand where your fertility’s at. Fundamentally, you have more opportunities to understand exactly how your body works – what’s normal, and what might be cause for alarm.
In the UK this system doesn’t exist. Unless you’re ill, you could go through the whole of your life having never talked to a gynaecologist. We know a lot more about our eyes and teeth than we do about our reproductive health.
Is this important in the context of egg freezing? I think it is. I think it contributes to an environment of ignorance – where society thinks IVF and egg freezing is a golden bullet. It’s actually, a really, really tough gig.
It also allows taboos to continue – and for male colleagues to be able to report their female colleagues to HR for – shock, horror – mentioning something so ghastly as a menstrual cycle.
Why not just let women be mothers in their 20s and 30s?
Would it be so difficult for the likes of Google and Apple to offer workplace crèches instead of egg freezing? So that mums and dads alike can just take their kids to work with them and pop in to say hello over lunch?
Goldman Sachs does it – and it hasn’t stopped their world turning on its axis. In fact, they think it’s better for overall productivity.
Maybe if this were the norm, everyone could get to work normal hours (rather than mums and dads rushing out for the school run, leaving their childless colleagues to work late).
And crucially, egg freezing would be something that a woman could choose, privately, for herself, if that’s what she thinks would be best – but knowing she also has the option to have kids at the age when nature is most likely to play ball.
I think egg freezing sounds like a great, high-tech option. But that’s because so few people understand what’s involved. It’s wonderful that it exists – because if you’re about to go through cancer treatment – or you really do want to delay having kids – it gives you a chance.
But I don’t think it should be a work benefit. Because work benefits are the “win-win” things employers want their teams to do – eat fruit and go to the gym because it’s healthy and you’ll take less time off work. So even by offering egg freezing, you’re implying that it’s in everyone’s best interests for women to delay having babies.
And in 10, 20 years time when women want to use their eggs and it doesn’t work for them… are they going to sue? Are they going to be bloody angry that they chose to work for a company that offers egg freezing rather than one that offers a crèche?
I can’t help but think that the option of freezing eggs feels horribly like those job interviews I had in the mid 90s.
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