Nickie Aiken MP, Cities of London and Westminster, discusses why women going through IVF need statutory leave at work
Ann was forced out of a high-flying job in finance because her employer discovered she was undergoing IVF.
She ended up in hospital for several weeks following a complication with her treatment, and subsequently received a disciplinary hearing at work. She ended up quitting a job she loved and had 19 years’ experience in. Ann is my constituent, and after listening to her story, I decided to take this important issue to Parliament.
Infertility affects one in six couples, that’s millions of people, across all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. Going through treatment is emotionally draining, costly, risky and it can be a long process. And it is predominantly women who have to go through it, sometimes multiple cycles, before conceiving. They have to deal with the side effects, the risk of complications, and the day-to-day practicalities.
Undergoing treatment while juggling a career is very tough. Many people, like Ann, feel they cannot tell their employer for fear of being overlooked for a promotion or being made redundant. They are staying silent because of fear and a lack of protection. I’ve heard of women having to inject themselves in the toilets at work, just so their bosses don’t find out.
Those who do tell their employer feel vulnerable, they feel like they are often overlooked for promotion or have big projects taken off them. It’s no wonder more than a third (36 percent) going through treatment have considered quitting their job.
I cannot believe in this day and age that women do not have the statutory right to take time off for attending appointments for fertility treatment. Infertility is after all a medical issue, defined by the World Health Organisation as a disease of the reproductive system. We have got to change this. People need permission to attend fertility appointments no matter where they work, without fear of being negatively impacted in their career. And I am pleased to be working with a group of brilliant women and organisations to bring this campaign to Parliament.
One of the amazing organisations I am working with is Fertility Matters at Work, they believe that the number of people going through treatment and quitting their job or setting up their own business is actually much higher than 36 percent. And they’ve found through their surveys that some 70 percent have taken sick leave. This is shockingly high, and it is bound to have a massive organisational impact in the places in which they work.
They hear that people feel embarrassed and unfortunately there is a stigma in society attached to infertility.
My Parliamentary Bill sets out to give individuals and couples the statutory right to take the time off for fertility treatment, just like they would have for antenatal appointments.
I would also like to see a legal requirement for employers to have a workplace fertility policy. One of the brilliant women I have been working with is Natalie Sutherland who is a partner and fertility officer at her law firm, Burgess Mee. Natalie is a dedicated point of contact for staff going through treatment and they can talk to her in confidence, discuss policies, time off and work cover.
We need to see much more of this, and I would like to see organisations introduce guidance on rights to time off work for treatment and miscarriage, flexible working, access to HR support and counselling on a confidential basis. This would help to improve workplace culture for workers looking to build a family through fertility treatment.
We are seeing people choosing to have children later in life and this comes with its biological challenges. Over the last twenty years, the average age at which women have children has increased by 2.3 years to 30.7. Meanwhile, the proportion of IVF cycles undertaken by patients over the age of 40 has increased from 689 cycles in 1991 (10 percent) to 14,761 cycles in 2019 (21 percent). Workplaces need to take this into account when planning ahead and thinking about their workforce strategies.
Above all, we should be celebrating the fact that we have access to amazing science that allows couples and individuals, who want to have a child, and give them the best possible life, to be able to try for just that. Everyone should have the right to build their family and to do so without fear of unfavourable treatment in the workplace.
I’m pleased to have got this very important campaign to Parliament. If we are successful, millions of people, like Ann, will be better off.
If you’re interested in hearing more about my campaign and from some of the brilliant women I am working with, listen to my podcast episode on the issue. In Conversation with Nickie Aiken is available on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you normally download your podcasts.