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Opinion

Fertility perks mask a work culture that’s still failing women

Trying to conceive brings a host of emotional, financial, and other challenges.

Sharon O'Dea

Leader

fertility
Credit: ASHEESH via Twenty20.

Women may be getting fertility benefits, but they often aren’t getting enough employer support. Unleash Your People

In recent months a host of UK firms — including Clifford Chance, NatWest, and Centrica — have introduced egg freezing or IVF treatment policies to help staff who want to become parents.

One, UK bank Natwest, is offering its staff discounted IVF, sperm freezing, treatment with donor eggs, as well as support for same-sex couples who want to start a family.

Offering fertility treatments as a workplace benefit has rapidly gained popularity in the US and is starting to gather momentum this side of the pond.

While greater openness about women’s reproductive health is a positive move, putting a pause on parenthood might not be the perk it seems at first glance.

Critics of the Natwest scheme believe offering this support will encourage women to put off parenthood.

That’s a lazy and over-simplistic assessment. True, 10 times as many millennial women are expected to remain childless as in our grandparents’ generation. But the reasons for that are manifold. Some may be unsure if they want kids, others plan to but haven’t met ‘Mr Right’. 

Women take on the vast majority of the emotional and physical labor of child-rearing. Our economy is so stacked against the young that between student debt and housing inflation family life feels unaffordable.

Fears of the motherhood penalty — where women suffer negative impacts on income and perceived competence upon becoming parents — means the pressure is on to hit career goals before taking time out.

Against that background, it’s no surprise that fertility perks, such as cut-price egg freezing, appeal to today’s 30-somethings. 

Helen*, a 38-year-old content producer, took up the option of ‘oocyte cryopreservation’ offered by her tech giant employer.

“They introduced the benefit in my last year there, I knew I’d be leaving and I was 35 and terminally single. I saw it as an insurance policy.”

“Life is complex. We don’t always have the option to become mothers in our 20s and 30s. If medicine can help extend that clock a little, why not?”

But while it’s sold as a simple solution to the conflict between your biological clock and the reality of life, putting your eggs on ice is a brutal process. And the chances of having a child at the end of it remain low.

Whether women choose assisted reproduction in their 20s or are forced to do so later when fertility problems become apparent, trying to conceive brings a host of emotional and practical challenges as well as financial ones.

Women are forced to juggle injections and unpredictable hospital appointments with unsympathetic bosses and colleagues. 

Emma, a management consultant, turned to reciprocal IVF to have a baby with her same-sex partner. While she described her employer as supportive, the pressure and guilt we all juggle over work, career, and money makes even starting the process a difficult choice to make.

“I felt like I was too busy to be in a good place to do it.

“My employer was flexible in letting me go to scans and appointments, but mentally I didn’t feel like anyone was going to suggest doing an “easy” project for a bit whilst I went through a hard thing.”

“I hated every second of the treatment and I can’t quite liken it to anything else — the guilt in letting someone else down, the financial worries, etc.

“We ended up having a baby, which I am grateful for every day, but the experience of IVF was horrible and quite raw.”

That was my experience, too.

Having put off starting a family while I established my career, I learned I’d left it too late to let nature take its course.

What followed was a hellish year of hormone injections, invasive scans, and, ultimately, disappointment. IVF treatment has huge physical and emotional impacts, yet couples are frequently forced to keep this a secret from colleagues and put on a brave face.

Katy Lindemann, who blogs about infertility and pregnancy loss as Uber Barrens, calls infertility “the club no one wants to be part of”. But, she found after speaking to hundreds of women for her forthcoming book, “it helps to know you’re not alone”.

One in six couples have problems conceiving — a number that’s growing as the average age of parenthood pushes even further back. One in four will experience a miscarriage. Employers have a vital role to play in making parenthood possible. And this, in turn, will help to attract and retain female talent.

As well as financial help, women need practical and emotional support when they’re trying to conceive. 

UK neobank Monzo offers a wide range of support, including time off for fertility treatment or pregnancy loss. As Monzo has grown from startup to retail bank, the number of staff starting with families has leaped, forcing them to rethink the ways they can support ‘Monzonauts’ to become parents.

An employee support group has been set up for Monzo staff experiencing fertility treatment, with additional mental health support available for all employees trying to become parents through mental health first aid, sick leave days for mental health, an employee assistance program, and a mental health Slack channel.

Once kids are born, employers can support women’s careers by increasing parental leave and encourage both parents to share this, plus flexible working around caring commitments.

John Lewis claims to be the first UK retailer to equalize paid leave for all parents. From later this year all employees who have been at the company for a year, regardless of how they became a parent, will be offered 26 weeks of paid leave when they have a baby. 

Any employee who loses a pregnancy will be entitled to take two weeks’ leave with pay and will be offered emotional support through the organization’s free counseling and mental health services.

These announcements mark a welcome shift in attitudes and policies, and one that is timely as the COVID-19 crisis has forced more couples to put their plans on hold.

But there’s still a long way to go. 

Pregnancy discrimination is still widespread, with an estimated 54,000 women losing their jobs each year simply for getting pregnant.

Couples need help not just with the option to delay motherhood but creating an environment where women feel they can have a child at any point without it screwing up their careers and finances. 

If companies begin to acknowledge the challenges surrounding fertility and reproductive health throughout a woman’s working life, more people will feel comfortable taking the time off that they need, and more senior women will choose to stay in their jobs after having children, and more can be done to tackle the persistent pay gender gap.

Insuring ourselves against our future fertility wouldn’t be necessary if workplaces met the needs of women at all stages of their lives. Instead, we’re enticed to give the best years of our lives to work in exchange for (often false) hope of a family later.

We all deserve better.

* This is not her real name. Her name has been changed for the purpose of the story

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