“Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career,” announced the headline of a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story in 2014. It was the year that Facebook and then Apple began offering egg freezing as a benefit to employees. Hundreds of think pieces followed, debating the costs and benefits of “postponing procreation” in the name of professional advancement.
In the years since, many more women across the world have frozen their eggs. Many are highly educated. But the decision may have very little to do with work, at least according to a new study. In interviews with 150 American and Israeli women who had undergone one cycle, career planning came up as the primary factor exactly two times.
Instead, most women focused on another reason: they still hadn’t found a man to build a family with.
“The stereotype that these ambitious career women are freezing their eggs for the purposes of their career — that’s really inaccurate at the present time,” said Marcia Inhorn, a medical anthropologist from Yale University, and one of the authors of the study, which was presented Monday at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology’s conference in Spain.
Most of these mid-to-late 30s women were already established in their careers by the time they got to the clinic, the study found.
“They weren’t freezing to advance; they were facing the overarching problem of partnership,” she said. This was the case, even among those who worked for companies that offered to pay for the procedure.
Though a single woman, headed toward 40, may feel like a freakish anomaly as she freezes her eggs because she hasn’t found a partner, she’s not. This finding echoes other studies in the United States and Britain that have similarly found that it’s the absence of a partner that drives most women to freeze their eggs.
The subjects in this particular study, which has not yet been published, came from seven different fertility clinics. In the United States, the women generally lived in cities along the East Coast or in the Bay Area. They ranged in age from 29 to 42, with three-quarters falling between 35 and 39.
The research approach taken by Dr. Inhorn and her co-authors Dr. Pasquale Patrizio, director of the Yale Fertility Center, and Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli of the University of Haifa, involved asking women — both single and those who had partners — to share their egg freezing stories and then analyzing their responses to try to understand their primary motives.
Of the participating women, 85 percent were single and most were heterosexual. For about half of these single women, it was uncertainty about when they would meet a man to build a family with that brought them to the clinic, they told the researchers. The next largest group was driven there by a divorce or breakup. (Egg freezing was actually covered by several of these women’s divorce settlements.) This was followed by a smaller group of women who were deployed overseas and felt it was wise to freeze their eggs first and then a handful of women who were preparing to have a baby on their own. Career planning was the least common reason.
Among the 15 percent of the subjects who were in relationships, the reasons for freezing their eggs were not unlike the single women’s: though they had a partner, he was not yet ready or not interested in building a family.
Why are so many women having a hard time finding men to have children with? One hypothesis that researchers often cite is that it’s related to demographics. Women in many developed countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan, Norway and Australia, are now more educated then men. This could be creating a dearth of appealing male partners for these women.
An American doctor in Dr. Inhorn’s study voiced this concern, saying “Most men don’t want relationships,” and are willing to date uneducated women, whereas most educated women will not. “So I think I have about a .09 percent chance of meeting someone.”
While a number of her subjects seemed to feel empowered by their decision to freeze their eggs, this sense of frustration was common.
“Why me? Why did I end up this way?” was a question that came up a lot. Yes, they had focused on their careers — but they had relationships over the years as well. Neither they, nor their friends, had expected to find themselves without a partner at this stage in their lives.
“It’s not something you’ve done,” Dr. Inhorn said she found herself wanting to tell them. “It’s you and thousands of other women.”