Birth of a new benefit?

Apple, Facebook helping pay for female employees to freeze eggs
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/01/2014

The numbers paint a clear picture: Just 31 per cent of employees at Facebook are female and at the senior level, 23 per cent are women. At Apple, the numbers are similar — 30 per cent of its global workforce is female, and 28 per cent of its leadership.


Those weak diversity numbers may explain why the two tech giants have decided to help female employees freeze their eggs. Since January 2014, Facebook has been offering egg freezing for medical and non-medical reasons to all employees in the United States covered by its insurance plan. 


“This benefit is covered 100 per cent up to $20,000,” said Genevieve Grdina of corporate communications in San Francisco.

And from January 2015, Apple will pay both full- and part-time employees up to US$20,000 for the procedure and storage costs for female employees to freeze their eggs, according to Reuters.


“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,” Apple said in a statement. 


“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.”


The news has been met with mixed reactions, with some declaring the benefits a welcome change that supports women and provides greater equality, while others claim the perk encourages women to “act like men” and put their careers before motherhood. 


“The message such a policy sends is this: If you get pregnant when young, then you can’t be serious about your career. If you truly want to make partner, then have your eggs preserved and keep up your pace like one of the guys,” said Lea Singh in a blog at Real Women of Canada.


Further complicating the matter are legal concerns, especially if such a practice became common in Canada. So, is this a benefit Canadian employers should be considering?


Improved procedures

It’s questionable whether this is the best use of money, said Michael Cheung, founder and medical director at the Grace Fertility Centre in Vancouver.


“The concept is marvellous and I would take it, of course, if I worked at Apple or (Facebook), I would take the benefit. However, I would rather someone to say, ‘We have this better idea of planning to genuinely help women to continue on with their career and so forth without necessarily going through this step, which gives you some security but not necessarily guarantees the pregnancy you want.’”


More employers may be considering this move now because the procedures have advanced and the success rate is much better, he said — with the proviso that the age of the women involved is younger, in their 20s.


But it’s not a light decision to be made. The procedure involves hormone injections, can be painful and requires expensive medication along with ultrasounds and egg retrieval, said Cheung. There’s also no guarantee one cycle will be enough to ensure a pregnancy, and each cycle adds to the cost.


“Is that one single cycle enough to give you that confidence to delay childbearing until you’re 39?” he said. “It may still give people the wrong message if they don’t understand this in the right context… it’s a good benefit to have but it may not necessarily 100 per cent solve the problem.”


As women age, the ability to conceive and carry a child to term decreases — so there are no guarantees, according to Lindy Forte, a health economics analyst and principal consultant at Patient Access Solutions in Toronto.


“It’s not like you can just freeze the eggs at age 30 and then wait until you’re 45 because (then) your body is lower in hormones needed to sustain that pregnancy,” she said. “There’s a real misconception that infertility is a lifestyle choice, you know: ‘It’s the people’s fault because they waited too long, these women were career-minded, they put off childbearing and now it’s their own fault that they can’t get pregnant.’ And that’s absolutely not true.”


But it’s “wonderful” if employers are providing this new benefit and it’s a good way to attract and retain talent, said Forte.


“People who have been able to conceive a child in part funded by an employer are more likely to be loyal to that employer, I think, and the employers can attract valuable workers as well, they can become competitive in the marketplace.”


However, that same benefit should also be extended to individuals faced with infertility, said Forte. Treatments can range from $10,000 to $15,000 per cycle and a person may undergo up to three treatments in one year.


“It makes good financial sense for private insurers to cover this infertility benefit for their employees so that they’re not implanting more than one embryo at a time and then risking their own health and the health of the infant.”


Infertility is also associated with male causes, so men should receive benefits too, said Forte.


“If you truly want to benefit society and benefit male and female workers and families, whatever the makeup of the family, there should be an all-encompassing benefit to make it easier for women to stay in the workforce.”


There are other alternatives well-funded companies such as Apple and Facebook could 

consider, such as subsidized child care, on-site daycare or longer parental leaves, said Cheung. “That would be a lot more exciting.”

The discussion should be about changing the social fabric, valuing childbirth and supporting women through good salaries and training, and ensuring they don’t lose their seniority after taking time off to have children, he said.


“That, to me, may be a better use of resources.”


Legal concerns

The big issue will be whether the offering of such an employment benefit constitutes discrimination under various human rights legislation, said Dana Du Perron, an associate lawyer at Nelligan O’Brien Payne in Ottawa.


“It’s where you could demonstrate that, in offering that benefit, employers expected women to make use of it and to put off having children or if women who opted to have children and not freeze eggs were treated different, then there is that issue.”


And offering a $20,000 benefit to one group of employees, based on sex, is treading into dangerous territory, she said.


“There’s also potentially an argument made that this service is just rendering the service equal for women so the service doesn’t have to be provided to men. So if it does come to Canada, it’ll be interesting to see how that all sort of shakes down and how the courts rule.”


In the 2007 case Buffett v. Canadian Forces, a male Canadian Forces member brought a discrimination claim against the Canadian Forces for refusing to cover intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), which helps with male infertility, while covering in vitro fertilization (IVF), said Du Perron in an online post. The Federal Court, on judicial review of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s decision, said Terry Buffett had been discriminated against, according to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Canadian Forces health-care plan should cover the cost of the ICSC for male members, though not the IVF portion which was generally covered by provincial health-care plans.


“In light of this, if an employer offers egg freezing for female employees but refuses to cover similar procedures for male employees (for example, sperm freezing, as research has shown that sperm from older men are associated with more genetic abnormalities), it might breach human rights legislation in Canada,” she said.


The status of Canadian law on fertility is quite grey, said Erin Lepine, an associate lawyer at Nelligan O’Brien Payne in Ottawa.

“It’s definitely an incomplete body of law so there’s a lot of uncertainty even with the things that we are doing right now about how we can really go forward. So anyone taking part in this area of the law is practising with caution and we’re advising our clients quite cautiously about ‘Here’s what we can tell you for sure and here’s what we still don’t know,’” she said.


“(Employers are) going to have to think about what sort of consent they’re going to put on file about how the material can be used and who can make use of it, and really train the people who are working with these benefits to understand what sort of consent can be given and how it can be withdrawn.”


It might make more sense to have a fund that can be applied towards fertility treatments in general, as opposed to a specific procedure, said Du Perron.

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