More Companies Offer Fertility Benefits. It’s Only the Beginning

Nyasha Foy was at an alumni networking event in New York in 2016 when an older sorority sister asked if she was planning to freeze her eggs. “I was taken aback, but then I felt a sense of comfort,” explains Foy. “She was asking me what should be a standard question among women.” Flash forward a few years to 2019, when Foy found herself visiting that same friend’s apartment every night for two weeks, a cool bag of meds in tow. Foy has a fear of needles, so the woman helped administer hormonal injections.

These stimulated her ovaries to produce multiple eggs, which were then surgically removed and frozen in a lab. The process is physically demanding, and could trigger a medley of PMS-like symptoms. Patients can require a week of rest and recovery afterward. Typically, this would have cost the 34-year-old New Yorker a minimum of $9,000, but she did not pay a dime. Instead, it was covered by her company, Complex Networks.

Foy is one of thousands of employees whose company has footed the bill for egg retrieval, freezing, and storage. Facebook first began offering this option to staff in 2014, after COO Sheryl Sandberg said she heard of a female employee with cancer who couldn’t afford to pay for her egg freezing—so the company stepped in. Soon after, other Silicon Valley tech firms like Google and Apple followed suit.

As well as medical egg freezing, for example, if a woman’s fertility is threatened by an illness like endometriosis or sickle cell anaemia, employer-backed programs cover “elective egg freezing,” and also often include IVF, adoption, donor and surrogacy services, fertility assessments, and education. The process is handled by private third-party fertility and family care providers like Kindbody and Carrot, which have boomed during the pandemic. 

Gina Bartasi, founder and CEO of Kindbody, believes the reasons behind the surge are threefold. “Our patients have the flexibility in their work and personal schedule to think about egg freezing, and with Covid, meeting a potential mate out and about is a lot less likely,” she explains. “That and the law of large numbers—the more people who do it, the more people talk about it and feel comfortable with it.” In 2021, Kindbody’s clinics tripled in number and its revenue quadrupled. Ride-hailing app Lyft is among recent companies to have joined as a client, and is now providing the service to its staff.

Bartasi, who has been in the fertility industry for more than a decade, remembers when most companies were skeptical. By offering such a perk, they were seen to be pushing their workers into delaying parenthood, keeping them working longer. Things feel very different now. “In the US, it’s table stakes,” she says. “Young professional women ask about it in the interview process, and employees will leave if there’s not a fertility benefit when they want it.” Indeed, 68 percent of employees, according to one survey, would switch jobs for a better fertility policy. “Demand is from the employee up, instead of the employer down,” says Bartasi.

About a fifth (19 percent) of US employers with over 500 employees covered egg freezing in 2020, compared to 5 percent in 2015, according to a Mercer survey. As for organizations with a headcount of 20,000 or more, 19 percent did so in 2020, up from 6 percent in 2015. Spearheaded by companies in the Bay Area, the idea is taking off across the wider US corporate sphere, and gaining popularity in Europe too.

“Before, HR departments didn’t offer it because they assumed the government was taking care of employees, and that European health care systems were great,” explains Jenny Saft, cofounder of the Berlin-based fertility benefits platform, Oviavo, which operates across the continent. “We had to explain that’s not the case for fertility—there are tons of gaps.” From the UK’s IVF postcode lottery to Germany’s unwillingness to include same-sex couples and single women in its assisted reproduction laws, getting state-provided fertility care is a pipe dream for many Europeans. In Ireland, where numerous Silicon Valley firms have a major presence, there is no state funding for assisted reproduction.

In the past six months, several UK-based companies, including Natwest, Centrica, Clifford Chance, and Cooley launched fertility benefits programs to the tune of £45,000 per employee. Employers are scrambling to help out—or lose out, with staff liable to move somewhere that does offer it. But despite being able to cash in on the perk themselves, some employees have mixed feelings.

“I see both sides—on the one, it’s nefarious because, by giving this benefit, companies keep people in the chair for longer and get more work from them,” says Foy. “On the other, I’m now able to bring my full self to the table—a woman of color, a lawyer in her thirties, single and wanting to build a family someday.”

This quid pro quo approach led Heather to explore sponsored egg freezing. She asked not to use her real name to maintain privacy with her employer, a multinational tech firm in London. “I see it as another benefit and try to take advantage of all of what’s offered to me,” she says. Due to her polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—which can cause infertility—she can get three rounds and three years of storage, totaling over £30,000, covered through her company’s benefits provider Apricity. After three years of storage, Heather will pay for it herself, which is around £400 annually.

After hearing horror stories about side effects of fertility treatment from family and friends in the US, she sought advice from her longtime gynecologist. “He made me feel so bad,” she recalls. “He was aggressive, saying it was dangerous and risky—he was like, ‘If you want to have a baby, have a baby.’” While this reaction was extreme, experts caution women against seeing egg freezing as insurance against infertility. According to the most recent statistics from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), women who use their own previously frozen eggs have on average an 18 percent chance of having a baby. By comparison, the success rate for IVF is 26 percent.

The age at which you freeze your eggs also impacts the chances of success. “Women should explore the options once they decide to postpone starting a family beyond 35,” says Amin Gorgy, a fertility doctor and cofounder of the London-based Fertility & Gynaecology Academy. “Ideally they would freeze their eggs in their mid-twenties to early thirties.”

Heather, who is 33, went through with the surgery and didn’t find it so bad. “I’ll plan to do another two more rounds,” she says. “Although I’ll need to cover any other costs if I want to use my eggs, I don’t think it will matter at that point.” Thawing and implanting eggs through IVF will cost her upward of £5,000 per cycle. As for her company’s parental provision, Heather is rather more dubious. “I’ll feel supported at a macro level—we have good maternity cover and job assurance,” she explains. “When it comes to how people actually are, I see a lot of terrible stuff with mothers trying to get back into work—it’s going to be hard.” 

Courtney Hunt is a 33-year-old customer success manager at Manhattan-based Twilio, which provides $30,000 over three years to finance any fertility procedures, including storage. She had her first round of egg freezing, organized through Kindbody, in June. “I am less stressed and anxious about the future now,” she says. “I haven’t looked into what my workplace provides for parents and can’t tell you how many weeks maternity leave I’d get, but I know it’s significant in the tech world.” However, “it was more about the immediate process itself,” she adds.

Hunt met a partner over the summer and would still like to have children naturally. She anticipates hybrid and remote work will make managing pregnancy and childcare easier in future. If her company didn’t support her in the ways she wanted, Hunt would “have to reconsider a lot of things, including my place of work.”

Silicon Valley firms are known for higher-than-average parental leave. Reddit, for example, gives birth and non-birth parents at least 16 weeks of fully paid time off, which is four times the US average. Yet even with next-level parental benefits—one publicly traded unicorn pays for breast milk to be flown home when a mother is abroad on business—it remains a white-knuckle ride for parents in the workplace.

As former Facebook data scientist Eliza Khuner discovered when she was refused part-time home working following the birth of her third child, parental discrimination is rife, in and out of the tech industry. And that’s just for a parent at work—on top of that, the cost of childcare can be crippling. In Britain, it’s more expensive than almost every country in the OECD. It took a global health crisis for organizations to even consider reviewing their internal policies for working parents, and it’s unclear whether the basics—flexible working options and accessible childcare—will ever be added to anyone’s “suite” of perks.

And there’s the rub with the current egg-freezing bonanza: Without proper parental support from the state and employers, the whole thing risks being futile.

At the moment, over a third of UK companies have no plans to offer fertility support to their workers. The tech world’s trickle-down effect will be slow in this regard—Saft and Bartasi predict it could be five to 10 years before European employers align with the US landscape. “Even talking about egg freezing is still very awkward for people—we try to tell businesses it’s OK to use words like eggs and sperm,” says Saft. Introducing any kind of egg-freezing benefit needs a 360-degree approach, such as paid time off to recover from procedures and sensitivity training for leadership teams.

Fertility is no longer solely a women’s issue, and all family-forming benefits policies must be developed to meet the needs of LGBTQ employees, as well as men, because up to 50 percent of fertility issues sit with them. “In the long run, the majority of people will need support for reproductive treatments, so why don’t we make it more accessible?” says Saft. “The government should take much more responsibility to create a modern world we all want to live in, but failing that, companies are the next best institution for this kind of societal change.”

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