April 14, 2024

Why corporate sponsorship of egg freezing may worsen workplace discrimination against women — a view from Singapore

In recent years, there has been much news media hype on corporate sponsorship of social egg freezing by tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google. If the current ban on this procedure is lifted in Singapore, there is a strong likelihood that some local companies may follow suit and provide similar perks to their female employees. Nevertheless, this may be fraught with ethical problems.

Most obviously, not all female employees within the same company will have equal access to such sponsorship. Given the high cost of the egg freezing procedure, such a privilege will likely be restricted to high-value female employees, particularly white-collar professionals in executive and managerial positions.

Lower level female employees such as secretaries, clerks and office ladies who deliver mail and serve coffee, would most likely be excluded. While there are genuine commercial reasons for companies to provide attractive executive perks to higher-level employees, for example to attract and retain talent, it is imperative to “call a spade a spade”.

That is, for taxation purposes, such selective perks should not be misclassified as non-taxable medical benefits. Instead, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) should ensure that corporate sponsorship of elective egg freezing should rightfully be declared as part of taxable income.

Nevertheless, even if fair taxation is imposed on “egg freezing perks”, the contentious issue of unequal accessibility to this expensive procedure remains with corporate sponsorship. This could in turn exacerbate inequality along socio-economic and racial lines in Singapore, and become a sore point for ethnic minorities in Singapore,  who have long complained of discriminatory employment practices against them.

There are also other ethical challenges that are difficult to regulate by law. For example, if employers are willing to sponsor egg freezing for their high-value female employees, they may in fact have a hidden agenda of unfair and unreasonable expectations for these women to shove aside their plans of having kids earlier in life, so that they can devote more of their youth, time and energy to the company.

There is probably a dark side to corporate sponsorship of egg freezing, with the unwritten rule that if such perks are available, then higher-level female employees are expected to utilize them to delay childbearing, rather then take maternity leave; or else they will not be promoted, and be the first to be retrenched if the opportunity arises.

Moreover, the workload of some companies may require employees to work overtime after office hours, either from home or in office. Hence sponsoring elective egg freezing might be a strategy to avoid loss of productivity due to female employees needing to care for their young children after office hours.

For some higher-income female employees, it may in fact be cheaper for companies to sponsor just a single egg freezing cycle, rather than giving out 8 weeks of paid maternity leaves, as mandated by law in Singapore. Yet many women, even younger ones, often require multiple egg freezing cycles to obtain sufficient number of frozen eggs to have a reasonable chance of future pregnancy.

The offer of just one egg freezing cycle to female employees as a corporate perk, may thus be some kind of “cosmetic window-dressing” by companies to avoid the greater financial costs of 8 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Perhaps social egg freezing is such a contentious and “hot-button” issue in Singapore today due to inadequate workplace and childcare policies for young mothers trying to juggle career and family commitments.

An academic paper by lawyer Lauren Geisser stated that instead of refashioning the corporate norms of female employees sacrificing the full bloom of their youth and peak childbearing years for their employers, companies may find it in their best interest to offer egg freezing sponsorship at the expense of finding a long-term solution to sustaining long-term work-life balance and equality in the workplace.

Hence, she posited that corporate sponsorship of social egg freezing would implicitly assume that women will continue to bear the brunt of childcare and that the workplace will continue to be incompatible with pregnancy and motherhood, thus providing an empty solution of deferring childbirth via elective egg freezing. 

Such views were echoed by law professor Seema Mohapatra who wrote in her article “If professional workplaces were hospitable places for women to  have babies while they were younger and less financially established, it is unlikely that egg freezing would hold such appeal.” Likewise, journalist Nitasha Tiku sarcastically quipped that women may feel pressured to use the egg freezing benefit, “just like everyone feels pressured to always be on call to the office, always check email, [and] always have a smartphone in hand.”

Rather, the lavish sponsorship of egg freezing being offered may actually exist as a ploy to recruit and retain talented female employees, and keep them in “golden handcuffs” to their desks.

In conclusion, there is a risk that corporate sponsorship of elective egg freezing might inadvertently worsen workplace discrimination against  women, in the form of unequal access to such benefits by female employees within the same company, as well as unreasonable expectations by employers for their female employees to devote more of their youth and time to the company by delaying plans to having children earlier in life.

If the Singapore Government were to lift the current ban on social egg freezing, stringent safeguards are thus needed to regulate corporate sponsorship of elective egg freezing.

Alexis Heng

One thought on “Why corporate sponsorship of egg freezing may worsen workplace discrimination against women — a view from Singapore

  1. There is a broader issue behind these particular concerns. Some of us take very seriously any “perks” that violate the principle of equal pay for equal work. That is to say, an employer should pay FOR THE WORK one does, not for one’s personal-life decisions. Of course, the broader interests of society may justify government in augmenting some paycheques. The principle of equality would eliminate at least some of the arguments used in this piece regarding employer pay.

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