Fertility in the Workplace: Women are still Suffering

Infertility is more common that type 2 diabetes yet the support and resources in the workplace do not meet the need.

Fertility treatment is on the increase in the U.K., approaching 68,000 treatment cycles carried out every year and approximately 1 in 6 couples (3.5 million people) affected. One in 8 women of reproductive age may face problems when trying to conceive a child, which makes infertility more common than Type 2 diabetes. In 2015, 73,000 babies were born using assisted reproductive technologies, a number that has doubled in the last decade. But, it is still being treated as a niche issue.

Michelle Obama, upon the release of her memoir in late 2018, revealed that she and her husband Barack Obama had used IVF to conceive their daughters and opened up the public discourse around infertility. However, there are no clear workplace policy guidelines on the kind of support that individuals undergoing fertility treatments should expect to receive. Paid paternity and maternity leave has been a subject of discussion and debate in recent years, therefore aiming to make workplaces more inclusive for parents, and women in general. But, fertility treatments have been largely seen as a private matter, and not the subject of robust policy discussions.

In most cases, infertility is surrounded by silence and stigma and women, in particular, are reluctant to share this in the workplace, for fear of being stereotyped. In general, women already face a number of barriers and biases in the workplace. Mothers specifically face a motherhood penalty even before they have a child. In a study published in the American Psychological Association, Eden King shows that discrimination starts the moment a woman announces that she is pregnant. Women encountered more subtle discrimination in the form of rudeness, hostility, decreased eye contact and attempts to cut off the interaction when they appeared to be pregnant (wearing a pregnancy prosthesis) while applying for jobs in retail stores than when the same women did not appear to be pregnant. Implicit unconscious biases and stereotypes are at play here, as women are being penalized for acting out of their feminine stereotype. The study shows that these acts of subtle sexism and microaggressions starting when a woman announces their pregnancy puts her firmly on the "mommy track" and can have a huge impact on her decision to leave the workforce. Women who become mothers also earn less than their childless peers.

Therefore, many women might make the decision to not share their infertility treatment with their employers and managers. I certainly did not. I was the only woman of color, and even as a senior academic in a largely white male dominated workplace, I had faced microaggressions. Infertility can come as a huge surprise and shock, and I did not feel ready to share this with the wider world. But, more importantly, I was unsure of how my line managers would react to the news that I was actively trying to have a child. I was fearful of the impact this would have on the opportunities that would be available to me for leadership in the workplace, and that people would judge me and assume that I was not as committed to my career. Academia in particular was very unsupportive of mothers, and any flexible working options even until a few years ago. When I enquired in confidence with HR, I was informed that there was no fertility treatment workplace policy. Nor did they have any knowledge of the process of fertility treatments and the need to take time off for surgeries and post-ops, and neither did they have any understanding of the huge mental and physical impact that fertility treatments can have. I was fitting in injections and doctor appointments around my work commitments. When the treatment was unsuccessful, I was unable to share this with my managers, and faced a traumatic time trying to cope with the devastating news while engaging as normal with students and colleagues. When I finally gathered the confidence to share this with my line manager, who was also a woman, she was sceptical and asked me why I was trying to become pregnant when I already had a child. I was also told in no uncertain terms that I had a job to do.

Infertility is not solely a woman’s issue, but it is still seen as one. Even though male factor infertility is the root of 40-50% of infertility cases in straight couples, it’s often women who have to undergo much more extensive evaluations and medical procedures in order to become pregnant.

The emotional impact of a fertility treatment is huge, and still largely sidelined in any discussions about fertility or workplace inclusivity. Fertility Network’s Impact of Fertility Problems survey in 2016 revealed 90% of people were depressed and 42% suicidal. IVF is also time-consuming with multiple appointments at often distant clinics, and also has a huge financial impact in most cases. According to Fertility Network, “women having fertility treatment experience conflict between the demands of work and the time and emotional demands of treatment.”

Workplace support is crucial for managing this conflict but sadly this is typically lacking. The lack of clarity around workplace guidelines for infertility can be confusing for the employees as well as the employers. While writing this article, I contacted a number of companies but did not get any clear answers on what their fertility treatment policy was. In most instances, I was told that it is assessed on a case by case basis. There is certainly a need for a context-specific evaluation, but it is also true that when it is left to individual managers, there is more opportunity for workplace discrimination and bias.

One such initiative is the Fertility in Workplace drive that has been aimed at supporting workplaces in formulating a policy that supports individuals while they undergo fertility treatments in a compassionate manner, so that they do not suffer additional stress or face a negative impact on their career prospects. Creating a feeling of trust in the workplace, where employees have a true sense of belonging is crucial to create a truly inclusive workplace. We need to share more stories, have a more concerted effort for more inclusive workplace policy, and more empathy and compassion in the workplace for women going through IVF.

There is a lot of work to be done in this area, so that women do not feel stigmatised or judged during a time when they are already suffering huge mental, physical and financial ramifications.

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