Emma Featherstone 19th December 2017
“There is a huge decline in the quality of eggs after a woman reaches the age of 30.”
Reading this in a recent story about Rita Ora freezing her eggs at the age of 23, my first reaction was worry, then anger. How true was that statement? And why does the news have so much to say about young women’s fertility, while young men – who, for now, are usually needed to get pregnant – are mostly spared from anxiety?
I think of 35 as a vague deadline for seriously considering having children: an age after which it might get tougher to conceive. This is unequal enough already when some men are able to have children in their seventies, as aged male rockstars with younger partners often remind us – Mick Jagger, already a great-grandfather, became a father for the eighth time last year at 73, with his 29-year-old partner. But while the societal pressure to prioritise motherhood might ramp up in women’s thirties, twenty-somethings also aren’t spared, particularly with growing coverage of egg freezing.
One in seven employers admitted they’d be reluctant to hire women in their 20s and 30s who might have children in the future
And, along with that pressure, young women’s fertility makes them subjects of suspicion. While it’s illegal for interviewers to ask a female job candidate if she plans to have children, it seems to be a question many employers wish they could pose. In a recent study, one in seven employers admitted they’d be reluctant to hire women in their 20s and 30s who might have children in the future.
So, even if a young woman has no plans to get pregnant in the near-term, if at all, she faces simultaneously being told she better hurry up and get pregnant and facing down the kind of workplace prejudice that helps to perpetuate the gender pay gap.
It’s ironic really how such stigma probably keeps young women from the well-paying careers we’d need to take advantage of the egg-freezing backup plan. After all, most 23 year-olds can’t fork out £5,000 per egg freezing cycle.
Of course, following the Rita Ora story came how-to articles on egg freezing and real-life headlines about non-famous twentysomething women who had managed to harvest their eggs. These were accompanied by examples of large tech companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google, who are offering egg freezing as an employee benefit – something that on the one hand might seem empowering, but on the other slightly manipulative.
But even if the cost of egg freezing is taken care of, should it really be touted as a great option for every young woman? Dr Zeynep Gurtin, senior research associate at the London Women’s Clinic and visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge Centre for family research says egg freezing can actually end up putting more pressure on women to have children. “I would not recommend women in their 20s freeze their eggs – particularly because there is a 10-year maximum storage limit in the UK.” This means if a woman freezes her eggs age 23, she must be ready to use them before turning 33.
Plus, doctors are not even sure how successful egg freezing really is, she adds. “Because there have not been very many women who have tried to conceive using their frozen-thawed eggs, we do not have a large amount of data on the success rates for pregnancy following this technology.”
Dr Gurtin worries about the effect of media coverage of women’s fertility. “Sometimes the media messages aimed at women can verge on scaremongering. It is certainly true that female fertility declines with age, and it is important for women to have a greater awareness of this so that they can make the decisions that will be right for their lives, but the issues around reproduction and family life are so much broader than women’s biology.”
One such issue is women’s career prospects. Research shows that women who have children in early adulthood face significant challenges in gaining employment. The negative impact of motherhood on the career progression of 18-24 year-olds is bigger than the positive impact of good qualifications, according to a study by the Young Women’s Trust. It also revealed that new mothers, or those with a dependent child, were six times more likely to be economically inactive (not in employment) than those without children. Meanwhile, having children did not impact whether men were in employment or not.
Half of the men thought their careers would take priority over their partners and two-thirds thought their partners would handle the majority of childcare
And women who have children after the age of 24 are unlikely to be spared from a negative impact on their career aims. Indeed, an article from earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review suggested that if women can’t find a spouse who supports their career they’d be better off remaining single. It cited various research including a survey of millennial Harvard Business School graduates. Questioning male and female graduates, the survey found that half of the men thought their careers would take priority over their partners and two-thirds thought their partners would handle the majority of childcare.
Perhaps, to balance out the influence that being a parent has on women’s career prospects versus men’s, young men should be told to prepare for a stint of shared parental leave or even becoming stay-at-home dads. In an alternative future where young women take the advice of the HBR, twenty-something men might face the brunt of the fertility scaremongering. They might be told that by not proving themselves supportive of their partner’s ambitions (rather than just saying they are), they risk missing the chance to become a father and resigning themselves to eternal singledom.
Emma Featherstone 19th December 2017