“Freeze your eggs, free your career.”
That was the headline of an April 2014 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek that turned heads. The picture they painted was of a high-powered female executive, putting her eggs on ice to climb the corporate ladder or chase down a law firm partnership. Businessweek was far from alone in this angle; New York Magazine wrote in their 2005 feature “Stop Time” that egg freezing provides “the ultimate New York careerist dream,” and that “the women who are beginning to line up for the new procedure are the overachievers, the aspiring law-firm partners, the ambitious actresses, the medical-school residents.” Press coverage everywhere was positioning egg freezing as the exclusive territory of the so-called “career woman.”
But who is this “career woman,” anyway? And is she really the only kind of woman who might benefit from egg freezing technology?
History of the “career woman”
“Career woman” one of those subtly sexist phrases with which most women are all too familiar (after all, ever hear of a “career man”?). It’s defined in the Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary as “a woman with a career who is interested in working and progressing in her job, rather than staying at home taking care of the house and children.” (Emphasis ours, because what the heck.)
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The phrase has always had a disapproving slant to it. As writer and “Savvy Auntie” Melanie Notkin writes, “career woman” is a relic of a time “when a woman who sought a career was an anomaly or judged for making what many believed to be a radical political statement of feminism.” An early 1950s women’s rag, The Girl Friend, offered readers a quiz to help them determine whether they were best fitted for the (apparently mutually exclusive) “Love or Career,” with questions like: “Do you find the idea of sex so distasteful that you don’t want to discuss it or have it discussed?” (If no, you were marriage material; if yes, you were doomed to a career woman’s celibate life of work, we guess.) The idea was that women with careers and ambitions beyond the home were somehow subverting nature and threatening society’s very structure.
Even today, Notkin argues, the title “career woman” has “a pejorative meaning,” implying a woman who’s “cold-hearted” or “selfish” because she’s prioritized work over stereotypical feminine values. (Nevermind, Notkin reminds us, that women make up more than half the workforce today; as she says, “it’s hardly a feminist statement to have a job.”) In 2017, the career woman conversation has morphed into the idea of “having it all”—“all” being, variably, the job, the partner, the 2.5 kids, and/or the spotlessly clean house in the country—and whether women can or even should. It’s enough to make a modern “career” woman’s head spin.
The real reasons women delay childbearing
And none of this actually addresses the reality for most modern women.
Sure, there are plenty of women who don’t want kids at all—or marriage, for that matter—or who don’t think marriage is necessary for kids. And those choices are totally valid—the best part about modern womanhood is choices! But data demonstrates that a long-term partnership and a family is still pretty important to most people, even “millennials,” and yes, even career women: a 2014 Gallup report revealed that 86% of single/never married Americans aged 18 to 34 want to get married someday, and 87% of adults between 18 and 40 who did not yet have children said they wanted them someday. At the same time, women are waiting longer than ever to have their first child. Why?
Numerous studies point to lack of a partner—not the pursual of the “career woman” life—as the most common reason women wait to have kids (and the most common reason they freeze their eggs). A quick review:
- In 2011, a study of Australian women ages 30–34 reported that while 80% of the women surveyed “had fewer children than they desired,” more than half (54%) said it was unlikely they’d have children in the future “because of circumstances often beyond their control.” As the researcher wrote: “Those who did not have a child said the main reason was not having a partner, or being unable to find a partner willing to commit to fatherhood.”
- A Canadian study published in 2012 revealed that, of women who became first-time mothers in Calgary and Edmonton in 2002 and 2003, 97% stated that having a “secure relationship” was an important factor in planning a pregnancy. Less than 30% of women reported career goals as being “very important” in their decision.
- A study published in 2013 examined the attitudes of women pursuing egg freezing between the years of 2005 and 2011 at NYU. When asked why they were delaying childbearing, 88% of women indicated “lack of a partner” as a reason, while only 24% indicated “professional reasons.”
- A 2017 study of 150 women freezing their eggs at eight clinics in the US and Israel (that’s yet to be published) found that “more than 90% said they were not intentionally postponing their fertility because of education or careers… Rather, they were preserving their fertility because they were single without partners to marry.”
The research is pretty clear—it’s not simply “career women” who are waiting to have kids, it’s women who want a strong, stable partnership in place before they start a family. And since women in general are waiting longer to get married—their average age at marriage nationwide is 25.1 (up from 20.8 in 1970), and the average age of women in the New York Times wedding announcements is 30—that’s a lot of women.
Why are women less likely to be partnered, and more likely to wait longer for marriage and kids? There are a lot of factors.
First of all, women today are much more likely to pursue a college education and even graduate studies than in previous generations, meaning they’re less likely to be focused on marriage until they’re in their mid-20s at the earliest. But it’s not just timing that changes with women’s education—the fact is that women in 2017 are, on the whole, more educated than men. Since 2000, degree attainment rates among 25 to 29 years olds have been higher for females at every education level.
Researcher Marcia Inhorn—who conducted the 2017 study of egg freezers mentioned above—cited this reason specifically in her research. As reported in Broadly, she posits there’s a “dearth of educated men to marry.” “It’s not the women,” Inhorn told Broadly. “It’s that there literally are now sharp demographic disparities for women who would like to be with an educated partner.”
At the same time, wages are rising for women with careers (although they still make less than men, even when they’re more educated). In past generations, women were more reliant upon men’s income for household necessities. From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of American women who were married dropped from 74% to 56%; each wage increase of 10% for women as compared to men correlated with a 7% decrease in marriage rates.
In other words: women don’t have to get married in order to survive, so they’re less likely to settle for a partner—and it might take them longer to find the person they’re looking for. And despite magazine headlines about “career women,” that, by and large, is the number one reason women freeze their eggs.
Other reasons why women freeze their eggs
There are other reasons. Preventing future infertility in the face of health issues—like cancer/cancer treatment, a positive BRCA test, endometriosis, and early menopause—is common, especially in light of a recent push to get cancer patients more information about how their treatment might affect their fertility.
One example is Taryn Southern, who recently froze her eggs here at Extend Fertility. As she penned in a piece for ATTN:
“In my 20s, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Doctors warned that the invasive treatments could have an impact on my fertility. Fortunately, my cancer is long gone, but the experience left me acutely aware of the realities of having a mere mortal body.”
Other women freeze before or during intense schooling, like medical school; still others freeze because they’re not even sure they want kids, but they’d like the option. And sure, there are probably some so-called “career women” in the mix, too. The bottom line is that the reasons why women freeze are truly as varied and individual as the women themselves—and so much more varied than the career woman stereotype paints them to be.
Making it more affordable and accessible
So if egg freezing is useful for more than just wealthy so-called “career women,” how can we make it affordable for more women? In the past, egg freezing was so expensive that there were economic limits on who could access this game-changing procedure. We’re trying to change that.
The first step: egg freezing here at Extend Fertility costs less than half the price it costs at New York City infertility clinics, starting under $5,000. The second step: we offer financing options so women can pay a low monthly price (because we recognize that $5,000 is still a chunk of change—even for career women!). The third step: we work with our patients to keep their additional costs, like for medication and testing, as low as possible. All in a facility, and with a team, that’s totally dedicated to egg freezing.