Irish Daily Mail

Women fired for having IVF

With one in seven couples now seeking fertility treatment, you’d expect companies to understand the toll it takes on women. Appallingl­y it’s not always the case. Meet the...

- Antonia Hoyle

RACHEL THURLOW had barely switched her computer on at work one morning when she was called to a meeting room and told she was being made redundant. She’d spent years as a data analyst, putting in 12-hour days in the office before logging in at home to meet deadlines.

Until she planned to get pregnant, that is. Unable to conceive naturally, Rachel had three rounds of fertility treatment — a gruelling process that left her shattered and meant time off work.

For ten days of each IVF cycle, instead of leaving the office at 8pm as usual, she clocked off at 5.30pm so she could inject herself with hormones in the privacy of her own home. It didn’t affect the quality of her work, she insists — she took annual leave for hospital scans and egg retrieval operations and ‘still fulfilled all my obligation­s’.

Yet as a result, she claims, she lost her job: ‘It wasn’t becoming a mother that made me a liability, so much as the time I’d taken off beforehand to conceive.’

With no sympathy from her boss, and what she says was obvious irritation at her temporary absences, Rachel found herself isolated and ‘vulnerable’.

Redundancy came as a bitter blow. Though she contemplat­ed it, legal action against her employer would have backfired, she says. Instead, like most women in her situation, she swallowed her humiliatio­n. ‘I work in a small industry. Word would spread and I didn’t want to get known as a troublemak­er.’

Shockingly, Rachel’s tale is far from unique. A Femail magazine investigat­ion has revealed a raft of disturbing stories from women who claim they suffered discrimina­tion in the workplace as a result of having fertility treatment — from sexist remarks behind their backs, to blatant sidelining of their roles, to the loss of jobs.

Some spoke of their terror that by taking on such a gruelling treatment — where the success rate for women under 35 is less than a third for the first cycle — they risked losing everything: not only their job but their relationsh­ip, too.

One in seven couples now receives fertility treatment, thanks in part to advances in medicine and the fact women are leaving it later to start trying for a baby (ironically, often because they are trying to establish careers first).

Although most employers now outwardly champion equality, many are still intolerant of women who need help conceiving. Women fear — correctly, it seems — any hint of IVF treatment will hobble them in the eyes of employers.

That’s why Rachel, 43, didn’t let on that she was about to undergo IVF in 2015, two years after she and her 45-year-old investment analyst husband Carl started trying to conceive, and nine years after she joined her retail company.

WE DISCOVERED my husband had low sperm mobility and were told our only chance was IVF,’ she recalls. ‘I was heartbroke­n but still profession­ally driven. My job was competitiv­e, and I felt planning to have babies would be perceived as a negative.’

The procedure would require Rachel to inject herself in the stomach twice daily — exactly 12 hours apart —for ten days, to suppress her menstrual cycle, before injecting herself with a follicle stimulatin­g hormone (FSH) for a further ten days to increase the number of eggs produced. Rachel injected at 6am and 6pm.

‘I thought it would be obvious if I did it in the work WC,’ she said. ‘So I’d say I had to leave early, without giving a reason, and finished my work at home.’

Rachel’s ultrasound scans to check the drugs were working required taking mornings off work. An egg retrieval operation under anaestheti­c meant another day, as did the subsequent embryo transfer.

‘The clinic gave me a sick note for my employer after the transfer as they suggested I take a week to recover,’ recalls Rachel. ‘But I didn’t take it out of fear. People had already started making comments, such as, “Oh thanks for popping in” even though I wasn’t leaving till 5.30pm.’

Her boss — a married man with a stay-at-home wife — became ever more reluctant to sign her time-off-work forms.

Yet she knew ‘if I told him the truth he would have made my life more difficult’. After all, her cutthroat department didn’t even have any female staff with children, let alone an IVF policy.

When Rachel’s IVF failed — in 2015 and 2016 — she hid her grief from colleagues. ‘When I got my period at work I’d cry in the toilets. I felt a sense of inadequacy,’ she says.

In 2017, at last, her third round was successful but her boss’s reaction to the news she was expecting twins was predictabl­y lukewarm: ‘He said I wouldn’t want to come back to work afterwards. I assured him I would.’

When she did return to work in 2019, her maternity replacemen­t — a man —was kept on. ‘I was sidelined and my work picked over,’ says Rachel. ‘I felt bullied and vulnerable.’

After she was made redundant three months later, with three months’ salary, she was escorted out of the building.

‘Once I’d stopped over-committing, I was seen as replaceabl­e,’ she says. ‘I don’t want other women to be treated like I was.’

It would seem fertility treatment is the latest hurdle for working women, with more and more of them encounteri­ng the problem.

Solicitor Louisa Ghevaert, a leading fertility law expert, says there is ‘growing anxiety’ for working women seeking fertility treatment.

‘There is already a lot of pressure and stress for many women undergoing fertility treatment. Struggling to conceive can be heartbreak­ing and to then raise this sensitive issue in the workplace, where many women already feel they have to work harder than men to beat the gender gap, is tough.

‘We need change in workplace culture and policies to better support working women undergoing fertility treatment.’

Part of the problem lies in oldfashion­ed views of IVF. While it’s seen as the cure to a disease by the fertility industry — and the World Health Organisati­on — it’s still characteri­sed as a ‘lifestyle choice’ by others.

Amin Gorgy, founder of London clinic, The Fertility & Gynaecolog­y Academy, says most of his female patients choose not to tell their bosses they are having treatment.

‘They think they will be discrimina­ted against.’ But, he insists, ‘fertility problems are like any other medical problems. You are entitled to take time off.’

Jill Steele did reveal her fertility treatment at work — but was publicly shamed as a result.

After two years of trying for a baby, in 2010 her husband was diagnosed with a low sperm count and they were told their only chance of conception was through

ICSI — a form of IVF in which a woman’s eggs are extracted and sperm is injected into it.

A senior executive working in hospitalit­y, Jill, 45, was nervous about telling her boss of five years, a father of two in his 40s.

‘I was the only woman in a team of six. Our firm had just been through a merger and my job felt insecure,’ she says. ‘But my appointmen­ts would stop me coming in so I had to tell him — and initially he was supportive.’

Yet Jill’s relief soon gave way to stress.

‘His behaviour quickly changed. He piled work on — I was in the office at 10pm, desperatel­y trying to finish reports,’ she recalls. ‘I felt he was predicting me becoming a nuisance. Either I was going to get pregnant and he’d lose me, or I would have to continue with treatment and not be as useful.’

When Jill’s first IVF round failed, her agony was compounded by her boss’s attitude: ‘He suggested taking a demotion to take the pressure off. I felt undermined.’

After a second unsuccessf­ul IVF cycle a year later, Jill was called to a meeting.

‘My boss said my work wasn’t up to standard and I had three months to sort myself out, or “you know what happens,”’ she says. ‘Fortunatel­y we had savings but I was frightened at losing my job on top of the IVF trauma.’

I was sidelined and felt bullied and vulnerable

Two days later, a colleague revealed that while she’d been at a hospital appointmen­t her boss had told her team that she was ‘off being impregnate­d’.

And another staff member had joked that if her husband wasn’t ‘up to the job’ he’d ‘stand in’ for him.

‘I was distraught and utterly humiliated,’ says Jill, whose GP signed her off work sick as she took out a grievance against her employer on four counts — discrimina­tion, breach of confidenti­ality, harassment and bullying.

‘I presented pages of documentat­ion,’ she adds.

‘But in a meeting the MD said of myself and my boss, “I understand you’ve had an Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton falling out.” It was only when I got a solicitor they realised I wasn’t going away.’ Even then her boss faced no disciplina­ry action.

‘He just denied everything,’ says Jill, who accepted a settlement of six month’s salary, on the condition she would never speak ill of the company. ‘The grievance was running parallel to another round of IVF, and my only other option was taking it to tribunal.’

After six rounds of IVF, costing about €35,000, the stress of which eventually broke up her marriage of 15 years in 2014, Jill gave up her dream of motherhood and started her own business.

Kate Davies, an independen­t fertility nurse who trains employers on how to manage employees going through IVF, says she sees women quit careers ‘all the time’ as a result of treatment.

‘They often work with predominan­tly male directors, which makes it harder to have sensitive conversati­ons.’

And they’re right to worry. The first major research carried out on the subject, Experience­s and Psychologi­cal Distress of Fertility Treatment and Employment, published in the Journal of Psychosoma­tic Obstetrics & Gynaecolog­y in 2019, found that out of the 72 per cent of women who disclosed their fertility treatment to their employer, only 42 per cent received ‘adequate support’ and 19 per cent either reduced their hours as a result or left their job altogether.

As of 2019, only 23 per cent of employers had fertility treatment policies, although more are creating them. Since January 1, Irish employees of LinkedIn can avail of up to €27,000 towards IVF, covering the cost of three cycles, and a new Labour Party bill proposes that people seeking reproducti­ve treatments, including IVF, could be offered up to 20 days paid leave.

Should this bill become law, it would be true progressio­n adn support for families trying to conceive.

‘On average a woman will require nine days out of the office per IVF cycle. A lot of organisati­ons offer five paid days a year which is just not enough.’

Theresa Johnson, 35, an orthopaedi­c nurse, kept two rounds of IVF secret from her employer.

‘There was an element of shame, and planning children behind my boss’s back almost felt like a malicious secret,’ says Theresa, married to Christophe­r, 35, a shop manager.

Initially, her boss was ‘fine’ about the time off, Theresa recalls: ‘But before the fifth appointmen­t she looked uncomforta­ble. I trusted her. So I told her I was having IVF.’

A fortnight later, Theresa was told by her immediate boss and manager that she wasn’t performing ‘to the level expected’.

Theresa recalls: ‘I was shocked. The month before they’d said how impressed they were with my work. All I remember saying is, “I really liked this job. I really liked you.”’

As she left the building, the nurse she’d confided in told Theresa she was “sorry”. Theresa says: ‘I knew it was because of the IVF. There was no other explanatio­n.’

THE next day, Theresa found she was pregnant, and her anger was temporaril­y forgotten, as she found another nursing job before throwing herself into motherhood. But now her son is two, she says: ‘I don’t want other women to get burned like I did. Yes, we should be able to tell employers about fertility treatment. But in reality it’s often too risky.’

Indeed, as it stands, women are largely unprotecte­d. Although it’s suggested employers should treat requests for absences for fertility treatment sympatheti­cally, they are under no legal obligation.

If a woman is denied the right to attend treatment, her only recourse is to launch a claim for sex discrimina­tion, on the grounds a man would be treated differentl­y.

Paradoxica­lly, during the last part of IVF — the two weeks after the embryo transfer — they are protected by pregnancy rights as they might actually be pregnant.

In 2016 Trudy Simpson kept the fact she was taking Clomid from her former employer, a well-known retail chain, where she was a manager working a 60-hour week. An orallytake­n drug to stimulate egg production, it can cause nausea, bloating and mood swings.

‘My abdominal pain was excruciati­ng,’ says Trudy, 35.

‘But I’d seen friends sidelined at work simply for telling their bosses they were pregnant.’

Her clinic was a 45-minute drive away. ‘I’d dread telling my boss, who didn’t want children, about each appointmen­t. Nothing was said, but she started to train someone below me to do my job.’

Eventually, a laparoscop­y — a diagnostic operation in which a camera is inserted via the abdomen — revealed Trudy had endometrio­sis, requiring surgery to improve her chances of pregnancy. ‘I needed a fortnight to recover but my boss wouldn’t let me take it as paid leave. I was distraught.’

In the event, Trudy fell pregnant a month before her operation date. Her daughter is now three months old.

‘They think of themselves as a forward-thinking company with policies in place to protect employees,’ she says. ‘Yet they discrimina­ted against me for trying to have a baby.’

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