Fortune 100 companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet, relative newcomers such as Netflix and Uber, finance empires such as Citigroup and JP Morgan, and big law firms such as Cleary Gottlieb and Kirkland & Ellis, offer a slew of employee benefits to seek and retain employees; one of these benefits is elective oocyte cryopreservation, commonly known as “social” or elective egg freezing.
The benefits of this medical breakthrough are astounding and will undoubtedly open doors for men, women and families, but when companies and firms claim they will foot the bill of these services, who is really bearing the costs and reaping the benefits?
Women are born with a finite number of eggs: female fertility drops from approximately 85 percent at age 20 to 50 percent by age 35, to 35 percent at age 40, down to 5 percent by age 45; on the other hand, male fertility is subject to decline, but men continue to produce sperm throughout their lives. In the American workforce, these peak childbearing years coincide with the age at which men and women are vying for career advancement, finding a partner (millennials are settling down later than Gen X and baby boomers) and financial stability (exacerbated by crippling student debt).
The companies and firms that offer egg freezing are primarily in the technology, law, consulting and finance sectors—sectors that have been engaged in a “perks arms race” for young talent, offering perks such as so-called “unlimited” vacation policies, lax face-time requirements, subsidized food items, as well as more traditional benefits including profit-sharing and parental leave. As these perks trickle down and become adopted by more companies and firms, what does this mean for society at large? Will this result in our society accepting the male-oriented workplace where motherhood is incompatible with work and should thus be delayed?
At a high level, the costs of egg freezing and delayed motherhood include medical dollars, medical risks and potential for unviable eggs. Many of the companies and firms that offer elective egg freezing as a benefit do so up to a cap; for example, Apple and Facebook each offer coverage up to $20,000.
Let’s Run the Numbers on Costs
An egg freezing cycle takes approximately four to six weeks (from the hormone injection stage to egg retrieval). It is often recommended to undergo multiple cycles to ensure better chances of fertilization. The cost of one cycle ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 plus storage costs, which can run from $500 to $1,200 per year. In-vitro fertilization (IVF)—the process of fertilizing the egg and transferring the embryo to the uterus—generally costs $5,000. So, if a woman chooses to undergo two egg freezing cycles at age 30, freeze her eggs for 15 years, and fertilize the eggs when she is 45, she is looking at a cost between $32,500 to $53,000, assuming that these costs do not change over time and the IVF process works on the first go.
Studies are limited in the viability of eggs surviving a freeze, thaw and fertilization; while the number of women freezing their eggs has dramatically increased in the past 10 years (76,000 women are expected to freeze their eggs in the U.S. this year), the majority of them (estimated at 85% or more) have not yet thawed their eggs. And, the age of women freezing their eggs is dramatically decreasing—as fertility clinics are marketing aggressively towards millennials in the early- and mid-twenties.
It is not uncommon to hear stories of women thawing nearly an entire cycle’s worth of eggs to find one or two that actually survive the thaw and fertilization process. This repeat process can in turn increase medical dollars as well as the risk that her eggs are unviable—meaning that the decision to delay motherhood was actually not a delay.
A Workforce Benefit?
As for the benefits, employees benefit from an employer-subsidized safety net, while the employers benefit from employees working through their most productive years, with the possible bonus of hiring and retaining female employees drawn to companies that offer these policies.
Will companies that offer egg freezing benefits expect women to freeze their eggs, and potentially discriminate against or “mommy track” those who do not? Take Netflix’s yearlong flexible paid parental leave and “unlimited vacation” benefits for example: the company tells its employees to take as much vacation as you like; but the reality is that employees given these perks actually end up taking less time than they would with a set number of accrued days, and it can also save companies money that would otherwise be lost by paying employees for accrued but unused vacation days.
So, with company egg freezing benefits, who really pays? The medical dollars can be fairly easily estimated as shown above; as for the medical risks, until there is more data available on elective egg freezing, we will only have anecdotal evidence and success rates of individual fertility centers.
And, who really benefits? Egg freezing as an employee benefit may be understood at best as a scientific breakthrough for women to work through her most fertile and productive years to achieve career advancement and financial stability, and find a partner. At worst, it may seem a ploy in favor of employers to reinforce the male-oriented workplace leading women to choose the employer over motherhood.
Lauren Geisser, a corporate attorney at Russ August & Kabat in Los Angeles, focuses on mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance, and outside counsel to companies. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author.