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Friday, November 21, 2014

Reproductivity VS Productivity

By offering to freeze eggs of female employees, IT companies want to boost their profits

The controversial decision of Facebook and Apple to offer women workers special perks to postpone their motherhood has revived old concerns about the status of women in the technology business. The financial incentives to women workers to freeze their eggs so that they can have children at any stage past their reproductive years is being seen as a deadly weapon in what is dubbed as ‘perks arms race’ in the Silicon Valley. On the face, it appears that tech companies are genuinely interested in the welfare of women employees, while in reality women workers are being offered a bait to trade their reproductivity for their work productivity. The number of women employed in the technology sector is dwindling. Information technology companies are using advancements in human reproductive technologies to boost their own productivity and profits. Fertility of women workers has been reduced to a material input in the highly competitive technology business in its pursuit of markets and profits. It is critical to focus on this sector – more than manufacturing – since it is expanding with the growing consumption of digital products globally.

The relationship of women with the technology business dates back to the electronics industry which began to expand outside America in the 1960s. Women were considered ‘ideal’ for operations in labour-intensive electronic assembly lines as the work involved precision which could be executed by people with nimble hands and good eyesight. This was in addition to the low cost of such a workforce in Asian countries. This is what drew American electronics firms to Asia and led to the development of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia as hubs of electronics manufacturing in 1960s and 1970s. The adverse impact of chemicals and solvents used in the electronics industry on the health of the women, including on their reproductive systems, was overlooked. American hardware firms came to India too, but they were driven away due to socialist policies that dictated production caps and investment limits. However, when the indigenous electronics industry developed in India later on, it followed the same model of employing semi-skilled women.

In the new assembly lines of the 21st century – business process outsourcing and software services – women are employed for similar reasons: their dexterity and dedication. However, unlike women in the electronics assembly lines of the 1960s and 1970s, the information technology workers of today are technically educated and qualified. Yet the bulk of women workers handle jobs at the bottom of the ladder: testing, quality assurance and other such low-end jobs. Very few of them are in software development, project management, product development and similar high-end work. Since the Indian technology industry is mostly geared for outsourcing to America and Europe, night shifts for IT workers are routine.

Several surveys and studies have pointed out to the impact of high-pressure jobs in the technology sector on health – fertility in particular – of workers: both men and women. A survey of mid-level technology workers in the US, done by Stanford University and the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology in 2012, concluded that employee advancement in a high-tech workplace culture comes at the cost of family and health. The majority of mid-level men and women surveyed described themselves as family-oriented, but believed that being family-oriented is not associated with success in the technology industry. Many women workers interviewed described their jobs as a “family penalty,” while men too saw family responsibilities as a potential roadblock to advancement. It was found that mid-level women are more likely than mid-level men to suffer poor health as a result of work demands. They are more likely than men to report forgoing having a marriage or partnership in order to achieve career goals. Offers of huge allowances to opt for surrogacy or to freeze their eggs being made by tech firms further strengthen the notion that work comes first, notwithstanding facilities like daycare centres at work and paternity leaves. Smaller studies and anecdotal evidence from Indian technology hub, Bangalore, point to rising trend of infertility among men and that they opting to freeze their sperm for future use.

Non-medical use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) is dangerous for women’s health, besides having serious ethical, legal and societal implications. Egg freezing is not as simple a procedure as popping a pill. It is a traumatic experience for any woman to undergo as such a procedure is all invasive and carries the danger of long-term consequences for her reproductive system. These procedures are repetitive too – failure rate is high - and put women under a lot of stress. Women are put on super-ovulation drugs in order that they produce more eggs, which can then be retrieved through invasive procedures carried out under sedation. Such drugs put women at risk of a medical condition known as ‘ovarian hyperstimulation’.

All such reasons make it unethical to promote assisted reproductive techniques as elective procedures for perfectly healthy women. They ought to be resorted only when medically required for couples facing fertility problems, and not because your employer is paying for it.  Women about to undergo cancer treatment also opt for egg freezing as cancer treatment can often affect their fertility. The science of cryopreservation or deep freezing of eggs and sperms is still evolving. While it is true that egg freezing is no more at an experimental stage, still there are scientific issues relating to success of live births from frozen eggs and sperm, and about the age limit for a woman when frozen eggs can help her to be pregnant and to give birth.

The fertility market is all about commerce and not ethics. The idea of offering employees a perk to postpone their motherhood must have emanated from ART industry, which is very aggressive in marketing itself and falsely projecting these technologies as tools of women’s liberation and freedom. Fertility experts in India have lauded Facebook and Apple for the so-called fertility incentives, as they help expand their own business. An institutionalised promotion of ARTs in the West is bound to boost the surrogacy business in ‘medical tourism’ destinations such as India for reasons of cost and convenience. A single round of egg freezing in America can cost $10,000  or more. Preservation costs are additional. In India costs are as low as Rs 50,000. The same cost advantage holds for all related procedures. As it is, the surrogacy business in India is booming due to the absence of regulation and the inflow of Western medical tourists. Given the close relationship of India’s own technology business with the West, future outsourcing deals will perhaps come bundled with vouchers for fertility tourism in India.


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