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Indian women media execs divided over ‘egg freeze’ policy

MUMBAI: In a move that is as bold as it’s unexpected, social networking giant Facebook recently started offering its female staff up to $20,000 to have their eggs frozen. Ocyte-cryopreservation, as it is called, was initiated so that career-focused women can delay having children until later in their careers.

Apple, too, has decided to make similar services available for its women employees starting January 2015.

While the move is a first-of-its-kind in any organisation across the world, it has received mixed reactions from women employees internationally. First, there are those who are all praise for the companies for giving women the choice to stay on top of their game in the male-dominated industry. Then there are those who are questioning the move by stating that the companies are sending out a message that it is not a responsible time to get pregnant.

Gayatri Yadav

Gayatri Yadav

Even as the US struggles for a consensus on this issue,  would such a concept find implementation by companies in a conservative country like India, where women in the workforce has been growing steadily over the past few years?

TVP discusses the issue with a few women media executives who have held their own strongly and have successfully managed work and personal life.

The first thing I came across while talking to the women executives was the reserved attitude towards the topic. Many did not wish to be quoted as they were not comfortable discussing the issue, despite me being a woman myself, and preferred to have an online chat or simply declined to comment.

This implies that although women are making their way up the ladder and gender equality at the workplace is being encouraged, the possibility of having such a concept for working women in India would be difficult due to the conservatism of our female workforce.

Star India EVP marketing and communications Gayatri Yadav believes: “Anything an employer can do to provide flexibility, freedom and choice for women should be encouraged. We need to create frameworks where women are free to work, free to have a family and free to achieve a life of empowerment and balance. Many organisations will experiment with initiatives to help women achieve this golden mean.”

Mona Jain

Mona Jain

Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL) EVP cluster head Mona Jain, who has been working for around 25 years now, has successfully managed growth in her career along with bringing up her two children. She states that rather than having such concepts, family support and a proper work-life balance is enough to sort out any issue.

“I have been able to manage it well. While there is pressure, the trick is to balance it well. Women today are doing well for themselves. Some of them do drop out after they reach a certain stage in their career to have a family, but that is a call they take on their own. These are very extreme actions and I don’t agree with the concept,” she says.

Another executive who has managed this balance well is Colors’ marketing head Sapangeet Rajwant. Agreeing that the biological clock and the career clock of a woman are most of the times in conflict, she highlights that there are many women who have taken on great career responsibilities after having kids.

Sapangeet Rajwant

Sapangeet Rajwant

In fact, she personally took a break for four years in the beginning of her career when she had her first son. But she eventually got back to work and there has been no stopping ever since.

Earlier, at a work-life balance debate held at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Pepsico CEO Indira Nooyi stated, “when you have to have kids, you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management, your kids need you because they’re teenagers. They need you for the teenage years. What do you do? I don’t think women can have it all.”

Helios Media MD Divya Radhakrishnan agrees to the statement, but adds that in India where the family support system is very strong, a lot of women have managed to make a good headway in their careers barring the few months off on maternity leave, or even have come back after a longish baby break.

Divya Radhakrishnan

Divya Radhakrishnan

“Some of the top bankers, media agency heads, marketing heads are all women and successful at that. Having said that, there exists a bias when it comes to tougher working conditions like field jobs, transferable jobs, where there is an unwritten preference for men,” she mentions.

Film writer and author Advaita Kala agrees. “Women are evolving and there is a need for corporate practices to help them grow at work,” she says.

“I don’t know if people will openly to talk about it, but it can work in India. Many women at the top level would encourage such a move as it is like an insurance to have children.”

Yadav mentions, “There is no one answer or Holy Grail, but the effort is meaningful.”

However, Kala is quick to add that if implemented, it should be private and confidential.

Radhakrishnan too agrees by saying that the HR in an organisation has to differentiate between what seems like employee empathy and interference in personal life.

So far, harmless initiatives like holidays on anniversary, topped with a dinner voucher, have evoked a nice warm feeling. But freezing eggs of a female employee could seem too intrusive irrespective of the motive behind it.

Rajwant’s solution is that if you’re an ambitious woman or man, you know that sometimes work is going to come before family. There will be pressures at both fronts, which will have to be managed. But wouldn’t it be nice if it was totally acceptable to leave work early to pick up your kids from school, or for a sports day to take precedence over a board meeting?

She adds, “I don’t think that this concept can work in India. We cannot be so mechanical.”

Advaita Kala

Advaita Kala

What one needs to understand is that Indian society is different from the West. As Kala puts it, “The concept is an acknowledgement of reality in the Western world as their culture is different from ours. So it’s a great option for them.”

On the one hand, it relieves you of the pressure of having a child at a particular age, but by doing so, it also expects you to put that much focus on your work life. This in turn would mean that your work takes precedence over everything else in life.

It looks like a very good perk. But what one also needs to consider is that these companies are telling their female staff to hold off having babies. So, are these companies demanding that their employees put them before everything else, before their families, before their health?

“These companies are saying work really hard through your most fertile years and then when you may not be able to have kids anymore, you can give it a shot with the eggs we froze for you as a perk. Wouldn’t creche facilities or childcare supplements have been more helpful? This isn’t a benefit created to make life better for working women, it’s a threat,” Rajwant adds.

While the concept is having its share of controversy, if it succeeds in the West, it could soon develop as a trend in India as so many other things have.

Jain agrees by saying that surrogacy was popularised by Bollywood actors like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, and they have been very open about it. So, as that concept has now developed here, you never know, this may too!