HR must break the IVF taboo

Many employees worry that disclosing their fertility journey to their employers will negatively affect their careers, according to founder of The IVF Network Charlotte Gentry.

Speaking at the Fertility in the Workplace event in London yesterday (16 May), Gentry told the story of her personal IVF experience, which was hampered by lack of information and a feeling of being alone. 

She later founded the IVF Network, a platform which employers can introduce which provides an online community and over 70 hours of informational content for employees to support their fertility journey.

It also gives the opportunity for ‘ask the expert' sessions with fertility consultants and training workshops. 

“The IVF Network was born out of my own journey,” Gentry said. “I don’t want people to go through what I went through.” 

More about fertility in the workplace:

One in five women undergoing fertility treatment experienced unfair treatment at work

Channel 4 launches fertility support policies for workers 

Fertility support should be a statutory right, say HRs

Research published in April 2023 by motherhood charity Pregnant then Screwed found 22% of women who told their boss they were going through fertility treatment experienced unfair treatment at work. 

The study also found only 42% of women going through fertility treatment told their employer. 

Gentry said: “No one who hasn’t experienced fertility treatment can truly understand what it’s like. And some people are going through the physical trauma of fertility treatment and not being able to have that open conversation at work so they’re feeling so isolated and alone.” 

Linda Bekoe, CEO at marketing firm APLBC, told the conference that a negative company culture stopped her disclosing her treatment to her employer. 

She said: “I couldn't be open about it because I'd seen how people were treated when they did have kids. 

“And people must have known something was up; I was taking half days for appointments for example. But no one every asked me why I needed all this annual leave. 

“HR do need to just ask the question sometimes.” 

Natalie Sutherland, a specialist in surrogacy and fertility law at law firm Burgess Mee, said education and information is a key part of any fertility policy. 

“People need to have some idea of what is going on when you say you’re undergoing fertility treatment. That’s what will help you shift the culture,” she said. 

Sutherland became her firm's fertility officer after undergoing a miscarriage herself. 

She said: “I wanted to get rid of that line manager lottery whereby if your line manager happens to be unsympathetic, you have nowhere to turn. 

“My role as a fertility officer is to make sure people know they’ll be supported if they have a baby, or in fact if they have a miscarriage.” 

Fertility coach Jennifer Elworthy said many of her clients are scared to admit they want to have a family to their colleagues, resulting in subterfuge and secrecy.

To create psychological safety for employees, Elworthy recommended policies are built with the help of employees. 

She said: “You should start building a policy by auditing your employees and asking ‘What are you experiencing? And how can we make that easier?’ 

“And the policy you come up with has to be embedded in your culture. You have to live and breathe this stuff; it can't just be a folder in your HR wellness pack.” 

James Nicopoullos, clinical director of fertility clinic, The Lister Clinic, said if there was fertility policies in place, more people would feel comfortable undertaking treatment. 

He said: “When someone is undergoing treatment, flexibility at work is key. There are two main parts of an IVF cycle: helping the eggs grow and stopping them being released. 

“The timing of these differ hugely from case to case. And people will need time off at different times because of that.” 

Nicopoullos said he is glad to see an increase in clients who are getting support from their employers. 

“Fertility is finally being understood as a medical condition, not just something that happens to people,” he said. “That’s the fundamental understanding people need to have.”