Egg Freezing and the Empowerment Paradox

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Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

“Freeze your eggs, free your career!” blares the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s a story as tired as 40-year-old ovaries: Wealthy women who have achieved great things professionally are disappointed about how their personal lives are shaping up — now, though, they’re defying their biological clocks by paying ludicrous amounts of money to freeze their eggs. One of these women says she “thinks it will allow her to date without radiating the desperation of someone who has to have a baby right this very second." Another woman — whose male colleagues presumably aren’t losing sleep over how to maintain a career, meet a perfect partner, and start a family — says her decision “leveled the playing field a bit.”

Buried in the article is a chart that betrays the you-go-girl positivity. While more than half of egg-freezing women say they feel empowered by their choice, the next-largest group says it was both “empowering and anxiety producing.” This apparent contradiction actually makes perfect sense: If you're in control, you're to blame if things don't work out the way you want. A decision these women made to take the pressure off actually imposes a whole new kind of stress.

Most of us don’t have $12,000 to assuage our fertility fears, but the egg-freezing stress is right in line with a message all women are hearing with increasing frequency: As a woman, you’ll likely face problems like entrenched sexism, pricey child care, and impossible-to-navigate workplace double standards — but they’re nothing that a little confident, proactive behavior can’t solve. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of recent book The Confidence Gap, ask, “Why did the successful investment banker mention to us that she didn’t really deserve the big promotion she’d just got? What did it mean when the engineer who’d been a pioneer in her industry for decades told us offhandedly that she wasn’t sure she was really the best choice to run her firm’s new big project?” They set out to determine “whether a lack of confidence might be holding women back.”

Should all of us be able to own our achievements and feel secure in our expertise? Absolutely. My role models are all confident — sometimes overconfident. But to improve the lives of the majority of women, we need to spend more time addressing the big, structural issues that make it tough to succeed. In one study, 19 percent of those woman who froze their eggs said they might have had a child earlier if their workplaces had been more flexible. And, like the under-confident investment banker, those are women at the very top of the economic food chain. Those at the bottom need the flexibility even more. All of the confidence in the world won’t make child care any cheaper.

It’s true that women are hungry for advice on how to navigate this imperfect world. If we simply sat around and waited for society to become more accommodating, we’d be waiting a long time. But the advice offered by the likes of Kay, Shipman, and Sheryl Sandberg tends to overstate the ability each woman has to control her destiny. “Let's pay women less, sexually harass them, punish them for being assertive & then tell 'em that there's a confidence gap holding them back!” tweeted feminist writer Chloe Angyal this week. It’s hard to be confident in your ability when, in many cases, your ability has eclipsed that of your male co-workers and still not resulted in professional success.

This is not an indictment of leaning in or boosting confidence: I do want all women to feel empowered. I also want them to realize that many of the problems they face require meaningful attention from powerful politicians and institutions, too. Workplaces aren’t going to tell women they’re being paid less than men if they’re not legally bound to do so. They aren’t going to provide flexible hours or, God forbid, on-site child care until such “perks” become industry norms. Yes, we’re in control of our lives. But unless we recognize that our lives are also shaped by factors out of our control, a push toward empowerment will always come with a side of anxiety.