Breast milk shipping and frozen eggs - tackling female tech talent shortages or vendor selfishness?

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett September 1, 2015
Are services such as these creating equal opportunity for women in the workplace or do they pressure women to stay away from the home and be in the office?

Multi-tasking businesswoman
Should there be any holds barred in the tech industry’s war for talent, particularly if it regards that traditionally scarce commodity, the female? Or does anything go if you’re desperate?

In answering these questions, it really seems to depend on which side of the moral fence you fall. But the issue raised its controversial head again recently when IBM apparently became the first employer anywhere to pay for a service enabling its working mothers who are travelling on business to send expressed milk back home to their babies in temperature-controlled packages.

The idea is that breast milk has a very short shelf-life and, unless frozen, will spoil after a few days. Moreover, while US federal law requires employers to offer a private space and “reasonable” break times for nursing mothers to express their milk, the same is not true of transport hubs such as airports.

Barbara Brickmeier, IBM’s vice president of benefits, told Fortune magazine at the time that:

We are going to experiment with this and see how many women are interested. As long as it appeals to a segment of our population and they feel that they can better balance their work and home, we will continue it.

The challenge for IBM, along with just about every other tech company, of course, is finding ways to up their diversity levels by attracting and retaining female employees in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

But IBM’s tactics actually seem remarkably tame in the face of Apple and Facebook’s offer last year to pay to freeze the eggs of their US-based female employees in order to extend their fertile lives.

The practice is an expensive one, costing about $10,000 for each round of egg harvesting and another $500 or more each year to store the eggs. But both companies agreed to cover costs up to $20,000 – Apple as of January 2014 and Facebook starting a year later.

Although both vendors refused to elaborate on the details of the programme or how many women have taken it up to date, Apple said:

“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. We also offer an Adoption Assistance program, where Apple reimburses eligible expenses associated with the legal adoption of a child. 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.”

And Julie Windsor, managing director of HR and finance system Talentia Software, agrees very much with this tack. She is adamant, in fact, that such “avant-garde” approaches to “trying to develop and nurture talent in today’s increasingly competitive, global economic climate” should be “lauded” rather than criticised.

Moreover, the technology industry itself should be commended for “blazing a trail with some very unique, thought-provoking strategies”, she believes. Windsor continues:

It is to be expected that companies look at unorthodox ways to fuel more productivity from their current workforce. Some strategies will pay off and some will not, but you can be sure that, when those policies do turn out to be a triumph, there will be widespread adoption. Organisations should pay close attention to initiatives that encourage high-performing staff not to seek pastures new.

But Christine Naschberger, associate professor in HR management at France’s Audencia School of Management, is not so sure.

While she understands the “war for talent” argument and the fact that some women will want “the best of both

Surprised baby boy using a laptop computer
worlds”, she personally finds practices such as egg freezing “quite intrusive” – although she acknowledges that it could be a cultural thing as Europeans often tend to be more conservative than US citizens about such matters.

“The question is what’s really behind it? It seems to me that it’s not just about retaining and keeping female talent, but about getting the most out of them to make sure they’re more focused on their jobs. In a way, it’s very selfish from an organisational viewpoint as the underlying message is that the company comes first.”

As for IBM’s breast-feeding service, she feels it unlikely that many women will take it up – despite the fact that the US is the only nation in the developed world that does not mandate paid maternity leave, although companies are required to allow 12 weeks of unpaid time off.

Can of worms

According to the US Department of Labor, this means that only 12% of private sector employees are in a position to take any paid parental leave from work. IBM, however, currently offers six weeks of paid maternity leave apparently, while Google offers up to 18. Naschberger says:

There are lots of different problems associated with breast-feeding at work or when women are travelling. In France, companies have to guarantee that women can breastfeed for an hour a day somewhere private and so they’re well protected in law. But the reality looks very different as there are a lot of practical issues.

As a result, she defines the situation as a “positive trend in a negative sense as it opens a can of worms”.

Gareth Jones, partner and head of technology at HR consultancy the Chemistry Group, agrees. While the tech companies’ policies could be construed as simply a modern approach that gives females flexibility in their lives, it seems “a bit of a clumsy approach to appealing to more women to me”, he says:

It doesn’t feel like it’s something Nanny-state-ish - I don’t think it’s about that. It sounds like they’re desperate for staff in this talent area and so are looking at what else they can do to keep women. But it also concerns me a bit too. Hooking someone up to a machine and milking them has a horrid 1984, Clockwork Orange feel to it. And spending less time with their new-borns and expressing into a bottle doesn’t feel like something that women are campaigning for.

As for egg freezing, Jones’ main concern here is that female workers will feel under pressure, whether deliberate or not, to delay pregnancy if they wish to progress in their careers. He explains:

Some people will feel pressured, even if it’s not overt. You know how personal cultural cues are – there are unwritten implications to these things so ‘you should really be taking advantage of it to spend more time at work and get on’. But I’m not sure it’s up to employers to interfere with childcare and families, even if it does impact them.

While Jones believes that such approaches could well prove part of a nascent trend worldwide to encourage more women and minority groups into tech in order to increase diversity and boost the talent pool, he thinks organisations really need to start thinking about it all more “strategically”. He says:

I’m not sure dealing with the symptoms are the way forward. It would be more constructive to deal with the problem. So, for example, if you need more experienced coders, look at skills transfer programmes to help up-skill newcomers to the profession. It shouldn’t just be about doing things to hit targets and numbers – you have to open your mind.

My Take

While some women may welcome initiatives of this type, tech companies must think carefully about them and their implications. The problem is that if they are not careful, they could end up crossing a number of moral lines in the sand.