Unintended Consequences of Progressive Perks

Just how much of this do women have to take from corporate titans?  In the past 2 weeks women have seen the clock turned back not once but twice: they’ve been told to wait for raises, and now to wait to raise their families.

It used to be different.  In 1988 Apple made what turned out to be a controversial TV ad in that year’s award winning Macintosh campaign (full disclosure: we were directly involved with the ad and campaign at BBDO).  The spot shows a successful corporate executive on her way to maternity leave after an office baby shower.  Her women colleagues help carry her gifts to the car, asking her who’s going to keep her valuable multi-city, multi-million dollar account humming while she’s away on maternity leave. “I will.”, she says. They’re incredulous: How can you do that while having a baby? “I think I’ll do it from the den.”, she answers neatly. The word Macintosh crawls up the screen to end the spot.

Back then that was revolutionary, to say that women didn’t have to miss a beat: they could stay relevant in their jobs, and not have to take off time to be moms. It was a radical idea that women didn’t have to be encumbered, and that technology could, in fact, level the playing field for women at work. And the message came from Apple.

How can it be that in the past weeks Apple allowed itself to say no, just kidding: if you’re a woman, and want to work and get ahead, then compete like a man. Apple’s announcement, followed a similar Facebook corporate policy, and announced that beginning in January 2015 the company will cover the costs for women who want to freeze their eggs as part of their fertility benefit under the company medical plan. Women employees can now opt to forget taking time out from demanding careers and mid- career success to have a kid.

Stay in our workforce, Apple seems to be saying, during those key competitive years, like all the guys do, and when you’ve made it – or not – then you can turn your sights to the family thing. That’s an oddly retro suggestion coming from Apple.  Is the technology they made, that was supposed to enable a woman to work like, well, a woman, no longer relevant to women who want to both get ahead and build families?

To be fair, we recognize that in the case of some women this new health benefit may be welcomed: take, for an example, a woman in her early 30s who is not in a long-term relationship and is working hard at Apple.  She may want to freeze her eggs at that stage in her life, thinking that it may be some years before she wants to settle down and have a family.  Freezing the eggs can possibly be a path way to a healthier child later on.

So, there will surely be cases where this new policy is warmly received.  But for a great many women, the signal is just the opposite.

There may even be a darker side to this new policy: deferring family building also defers costs to these companies. Apple pays more than the cost of egg freezing in the form of maternity and paternity benefits for younger women who choose to have kids.

And by moving the cheese, from benefits that support family building to benefits that defer it, these companies are also hiding from much larger issues.  For example, companies like Apple could also address a major challenge to professional advancement for all women: the burdens they carry outside of work.

The 2014 Harvard Climate Change faculty study shows that gender drives higher levels of outside stresses that affect workplace performance, by an order of 2:1. Zeninjor Enwemeka, writes in a boston.com article that “Women at Harvard reported higher stress with child care, children’s schooling, cost of living, and caring for an ill child or adult…Assistant and associate female professors who are single or have a partner who works reported spending an average of 40 hours per week on such duties, while men in that group reported spending about 20 hours per week.”

Companies like Apple probably need to think differently about how to support – rather than try to alter – the reality that most women face. Extending benefits for child care, elder care and other forms of family support – regardless of gender – is a place to start.

Investing in an infrastructure that embraces the extended ecosystem of families is also something tech companies like Apple can do. But let’s face it, the talent they’re mostly trying to attract with lavish perks are not women, they’re men. And judging by the lopsided workforce diversity statistics in most tech companies, they are successful.

“Facebook and Northern California residential real estate developer St. Anton Partners are developing a $120mm housing complex, which will reportedly include a sports bar, doggy day care, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, hairstylists, woodworking classes, and a place to get your bike fixed. What there won’t be is day care for human children.” (Mobile businessweek). Facebook is certainly not alone. “Bay Area companies often plan expansive offices with gyms, kitchens, game rooms, and other lavish perks to attract and retain the brightest workers. But onsite child care is not one of them.” Even in Silicon Valley, few companies are willing to take on the multi million dollar outlay for a company day care facility and staff.

Investment shifts to support women are a significant challenge to CEOs managing a balance sheet and quarterly results. But, beyond funding, it seems possible that the threat to the status quo career path may be inhibiting companies like Apple – led almost entirely by men – from thinking differently. There seems to be limited incentive to make changes that take the burden of choosing off of women – between staying on, or jumping off, the corporate ladder.

It is ironic that access to computing technology meant empowerment and liberation 28 years ago, but now seems to mean the opposite as companies embrace the power of medical technology to roll back the clock on real workplace advances for women.

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