The technology sector is the most innovative and fast-paced industry to be in and firms in this sector like Google, Apple and Facebook are reliant on the knowledge of their staff.
The more brainpower they have at their disposal the more likely they will be able to produce new products and outsmart their rivals. Thus the race for talent is almost as competitive as the race for the latest microchips, it is no wonder that Google’s offices are legendary playgrounds of colour and fun, with slides and table tennis set up to attract the smartest and brightest.
Just like a Peacock with its feathers spread out, all these shiny playthings and perks are intended to attract the best talent around. The latest and perhaps the most leftfield venture in this complex mating game is Facebook and Apple’s idea of freezing eggs for fertility treatment for female staff. Apple has a new head of human resources in Denise Young Smith who is also offering employees more parental leave. While Facebook also offers adoption and surrogacy services for its female staff.
Why are the biggest tech companies in the world targeting women? Well, the technology sector has traditionally suffered from a lack of women in their workforce, missing out on half the brightest brains in the world. Women make up 57 per cent of the US workforce in professional and related occupations, but only 26 per cent of professionals in the computer and information field. Male domination in the education fields of engineering and computer science, coupled with a masculine business culture has compounded the challenge: tech firms wish to do a better job of appealing to the women who make up more than half of the workforce. Apple said in its diversity report this year that its workforce was 70 per cent male, while Facebook reported its workforce was 69 per cent male. It is not surprising that the most innovative of these firms are seeking ways that will directly help them attract talented women.
There may, in the end, not be many women taking up the option of freezing their eggs, but in the battle for talent this has been great PR for Apple and Facebook. They are continually signalling to the biggest brains graduating from university that they are the best place to work, showing how far they are willing to go to look after their staff. Once hired Google will go even further, it has a concierge service in many of its offices, where they will even change the oil in your car as you carry on crunching the numbers and innovating at your desk.
While many will praise Facebook and Apple for their forward thinking, they are bound to face criticism from a number of quarters. First, and perhaps more fundamentally, critics might note that while perks such as these are very impressive and innovative, broader pay equity might be an even stronger signal of the importance of women in the workforce.
New research by American Association of University Women shows that the gender gap in pay exists among women without children and that it grows with age. This means that women typically earn about 90 percent of what men are paid until they are about 35 years old and after that median earnings for women are typically 75 to 80 per cent of what men are paid.
Second, especially in the United States, there might be a strong reaction from religious groups with a strong concern over the tricky domain of bio-ethics and reproductive choices.
Third, observers may be squeamish about the degree of paternalism when employers show concern for their employees’ reproductive choices. Some may feel there is an implicit pressure to actually delay motherhood by Apple and Facebook, adding to the pressure on women to put their careers ahead of building a family.
Ultimately however, these policies are innovative and forward thinking, and likely to benefit the employers creative enough, and bold enough, to offer them.
Facebook offers up to $20,000 (£13,000) for egg freezing for female employees, an amount that many women can only dream of if they needed such a treatment.
Egg freezing is one in a long line of innovative HR practices intended to be attractive to educated people with many employment options, seeking a focus on flexibility in the difficult balance between work and life. The costs appear to be moderate, although not trivial, at about 20 per cent of average annual salary at these firms. The benefits, in terms of attracting and retaining employees, can be expected to significantly outweigh the costs. The positive PR will pay for itself by signalling these employers’ values, with respect to women’s control over this important life choice, to prospective female employees.
Some may see it as a gimmick but it does signal that the technology industry is serious about wanting a more representative workforce, with women throughout all levels of the workforce, and also in the boardroom.
James Hayton, Professor of Human Resource Management at Warwick Business School