When she was a schoolgirl, my mother was given the Girl Book of Careers by her mother. This little red book, published in 1957, listed the job options open to young girls illustrated with cartoons that made the world of work look quite fun and chic.
The jobs ranged from secretary to veterinary nurse, with teacher, journalist and chiropodist among the few non “support” roles. To look at it today is to marvel at just how far women have come.
What would a 2014 book of careers for girls look like? The optimistic answer is: just like a 2014 book of careers for boys. Girls can become surgeons or footballers, Booker winners or human rights barristers who really impress only when they parade down a canal, marry a Hollywood heart-throb and take his surname. The options are endless.
Girls can also, as of this week, grow up to become men – or at least a bit more biologically like them. Apple is planning to offer female employees the option of freezing their eggs among other work perks, like unlimited data storage in the iCloud. Facebook apparently already offers its female employees up to $20,000 to spend on egg-freezing. That way, their reasoning runs, women can continue to work through their twenties and thirties without stopping for a few months to have a child and so inevitably fall behind their male counterparts.
The idea is also that this female-focused bonus might attract more women to work in top technology firms, whose staff are unattractively male-heavy – at Apple men make up 70 per cent of the workforce, at Facebook, 69 per cent. A survey in August by Tracy Chou, a 26-year-old engineer at Pinterest, found that across 174 companies in Silicon Valley, only 15 per cent of engineers are female.
There are no statistics on how sexist the workplaces are but negative accounts are rife – from Katherine Losse, former speechwriter to Mark Zuckerberg, whose 2012 book depicted Facebook as a cross between Mad Men and a frat house, to Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo! who at her first shareholders’ meeting in 2013 took a question from the board that ended, “You look attractive, Marissa.”
This macho environment is probably to blame for the egg-freezing offer in the first place, the silicon execs having discounted other initiatives like free cupcakes on Fridays and foot rubs for when the ladies’ high heels start to pinch. “What else do women like? Babies. Let’s brainstorm that.” To think that for decades women have been wrestling with how to have it all when the answer to the question of whether/when to have children can be solved by means of wads of cash and a transvaginal suction needle. With youthful eggs on ice, the work-life balance quandary is solved and the decision to reproduce can be delayed until employees are not too female but too old to be of any use.
The idea of any employer having a hand in the reproductive organs and family planning of one of its workforce is creepy. Perhaps one should not be surprised that Apple and Facebook, who already know more about their users than their users probably know about themselves, should profess to know what women want and when they want it. What their partners want is, apparently, irrelevant.
It is also disingenuous: freezing eggs is not a pain-free perk. It involves blood tests, ultrasounds, daily hormone injections, an invasive procedure, sore ovaries and at the end of it no guarantee that a baby will be born. Most of all, it is sexist. Far from empowering women, it marks them out as different from men, weaker, their work ethic compromised by their biology.
The Office for National Statistics has reported that more than half of babies are now born to mothers aged over 30, one in five to mothers over 35. Women have already worked out for themselves that one way to balance career and children is to start a family later. Some may choose to do it earlier, others not at all. Others might choose to freeze their eggs. And quite a few probably have no idea yet what life holds but certainly do not want their bosses breathing down their necks. Maternity/ paternity options, flexible working hours and crèches, yes; fertility windows and IVF, no. In sticking their nose into the ovaries of its employees, Apple and Facebook have shown themselves to be not the innovators but rather the dinosaurs of Silicon Valley.