No woman should have to choose between her job and IVF: Mother shares shocking story of having to keep her struggle for a child secret from bosses as MPs look at new protections for those having fertility treatment
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Choosing between my career and the fertility treatment I needed in the hope of having the child I so desperately wanted was the easiest decision I’d ever made. But I should never have had to make it.
For months, I’d done everything I could to hide the fact that I was undergoing IVF treatment. I’d go for early-morning blood tests, sneak out for scans in my lunch hour, I tried every trick in the book to keep it under the radar.
For a start, my fertility treatment was my business. My work – a small financial business – and my bosses didn’t need to know anything about it. Not only am I a private person, but the last thing I needed was anyone suggesting that my mind wasn’t fully on the job, or having colleagues worrying I was going to dissolve into tears at my desk.
I was also pretty sure they would not be desperately sympathetic to my situation.
While I’d never witnessed overt discrimination towards pregnant women, I was quite senior in the company and I knew my maternity leave would be a headache for the management team.
For months, I’d done everything I could to hide the fact that I was undergoing IVF treatment
I might have got away with it, for a while anyway, had it not been for the fact that after the first egg collection I suffered serious complications.
An internal haemorrhage meant I ended up spending two weeks in hospital. I also suffered from the life-threatening condition ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) — which is when the ovaries swell in response to the hormones given during fertility treatment and cause excess fluid to leak into the rest of the body — and got pleurisy and other complications as a result, which meant I had a further four weeks off work.
I knew that I would have to give the office a sick note when I went back. And when that letter included the term OHSS, the game would be up.
I took it into work, and had the conversation I’d been dreading — they were one Google away from working it all out for themselves so I thought I might as well fess up. Their immediate response was to tell me that they wanted to send me to work at an office abroad. When I told them I didn’t want to go because I wanted to carry on doing IVF in the UK, their response was to tell me that I had a choice: IVF or my career.
Like most women who end up going through IVF, I never expected to need medical intervention to have a child.
I got married, bought a house and just assumed we’d have children. Although we had no reason to believe either of us would have a problem, it became apparent that nothing was happening, so we went to see doctors and, after lots of nothing happening, we went down the route of IVF.
I was in my mid-30s and while we might have been eligible for treatment on the NHS, it felt like time was of the essence and, despite our massive mortgage, we were lucky enough to be able to afford private treatment.
I wanted my career — of course I did — but more than that, I wanted a child. And so when I had to choose, I chose IVF, even if I didn’t tell my employers that at the time. Instead I told them I’d think about the role abroad and get back to them.
When I told them I didn’t want to go because I wanted to carry on doing IVF in the UK, their response was to tell me that I had a choice: IVF or my career
Although the operation had caused me complications, the clinic had managed to successfully retrieve and fertilise my eggs, creating some embryos that had been frozen. The next step was an embryo transfer. Amazingly, it worked — I was pregnant.
But even then it wasn’t straightforward. Complications meant that at the end of the first trimester, I was back in hospital having surgery to save my unborn baby’s life.
That coincided with the three-month time limit you have to lodge an employment claim with an employment tribunal.
There I was, lying in hospital, not knowing if my baby would survive or not and having to take my employer to an employment tribunal for discrimination on the grounds that they’d effectively forced me out by telling me to choose between travel and IVF.
I’d already run up £20,000 in legal fees getting advice and we couldn’t afford to fight this indefinitely, so when they offered a settlement contingent on me signing a non-disclosure agreement that meant I could never talk about it, it felt like the only option.
It was a way to get a lump sum that would carry us through while I worked out who I was and what I could do if I couldn’t carry on doing the job I loved. Because I couldn’t. In finance, once you’ve done something like this, you’ll never get back in.
Up until that point I’d always been headhunted. After that, I never got another call.
But I don’t regret any of it — how could I when my daughter was born? It’s taken me nine years to talk about that period of my life without disintegrating into tears. At the time it was so difficult to process that I put it in a box and vowed to revisit it.
And so last year, when I saw the menopause campaign was being taken seriously by politicians, I emailed my MP Nickie Aiken to bring her attention to the issue of workplace discrimination against women undergoing IVF and to urge her to press for a change to the legislation.
If you read the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on sex discrimination at work, it’s only considered discriminatory if you can prove that they wouldn’t have treated a man in a comparable situation in the same way.
But there is no comparable situation for men. The ‘comparable’ example given is that of a man having cosmetic dental surgery during his annual leave. Yes, they are really comparing cosmetic dental work with IVF.
But even then it wasn’t straightforward. Complications meant that at the end of the first trimester, I was back in hospital having surgery to save my unborn baby’s life
Women should not be this vulnerable. I know I wasn’t the only one in the clinic having to keep my treatment under wraps. You’d hear the conversations: ‘What did you use as your excuse today?’ ‘I’m running out of excuses — there are only so many contacts I can claim to be meeting for lunch.’
Women deserve more dignity than this — and it affects men, too. I’ve often wondered how my old bosses would feel if their wife had been treated like I was and their chance of becoming a father was under threat.
Research from the organisation Fertility Matters At Work found that one-third of women going through IVF treatment have considered leaving their job rather than facing workplace discrimination.
The law is out of step with women’s lives. Infertility affects one in six couples in the UK and in about half of those cases, part of the problem lies with the man — but it’s still the woman who will have to go for all the invasive procedures, and take time off work as a result.
The Bill that we are trying to get through Parliament would give employees a statutory right to take time off work to attend fertility clinic appointments and will have its second reading on March 24.
In the meantime, companies are being asked to voluntarily sign up to the fertility workplace pledge, to take action before any law is passed to make their workplaces more flexible and supportive for people going through fertility treatment.
And many big employers, including the House of Commons, NatWest, Co-op, Channel 4, and Metro Bank, already have.
In part, I wrote the email that started all this for my daughter. I realised that, nearly ten years after her birth, nothing had changed, and I didn’t want her to get to that point in her life and for the situation to still be the same — we all deserve better than that.
As told to Claire Coleman
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