There have been some well publicised media reports recently about leading Silicon Valley companies offering female workforce the opportunity to ‘freeze their eggs’ as part of an employee benefit scheme in an effort to attract more women to their staff.
The policy is also designed to keep female talent, by helping them avoid having to choose between motherhood and professional progression. So, is this an option that companies should be offering or should we be working towards providing employees a better work/life balance to enable women to work and pursue family dreams?
There is no denying that the age in which women are having their first baby has and continues to rise due to a variety of reasons – the average British woman has their first child at 31 years of age now compared to 24 years of age in 1962. The reasons for delaying parenthood include women wanting to pursue careers, educational opportunities, as well as the high cost of housing, university debts and other complex social issues. Yet, the harsh reality is that both women and men’s fertility starts to decline in their early 30s – and even earlier if you are from Asian descent. Later in life, it can take a couple longer to conceive and there is a greater risk of complications during both pregnancy and labour with age. Achieving a natural pregnancy after 40 years of age is a challenge for many women, miscarriage rates are 50% and rise quickly with each advancing year. I have seen a significant group of women at HSFC over 40 years of age and there is no doubt that the number of women in this age category seeking treatment is on the up.
If parenthood isn’t an option until a person’s late 30s, or early 40s, then egg or sperm freezing will help to increase the chance of you having your own ‘genetic’ child at a later stage in life. Many patients of mine are devastated to hear that their only chance of having a child could be by using an egg from a younger ‘healthier donor’ – if only I had been able to talk to them about the issue 10 years previously.
It is really important to remember that there are no guarantees that egg freezing will lead to conception, as patients are still going to have to go through the IVF process and there are inherent risks with this. I believe we should be doing more as a society to support women to have children earlier – combining both career with motherhood. Better maternity pay, rights and improving access to affordable childcare, not to mention flexible working, would go a long way in helping to curb this trend and keep talented women in the workplace.
However, offering egg freezing as an employee benefit does give women increased choice and crucially raises the debate and awareness of the ‘fertility clock’. More than anything, both men and women need to understand that fertility isn’t an issue that can be put to the back of their mind. Having regular fertility checks which can determine the scope and health of a person’s ovarian reserve i.e. the availability of healthy eggs, is as important as attending other health screenings. It keeps you informed and if patients do find out that there are any potential issues at least they have time to do something about it – knowledge is key!
Finally, employers should also remember that fertility struggles are not simply a woman’s issue – in fact men are found to be solely responsible for 20-30% of infertility cases and contribute to 50% of cases overall. Raising awareness of fertility health is an important issue for all employees – employers would be wise to recognise this.
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