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.’
Antonia Hoyle investigated the number of women who are experiencing discrimination in the workplace after having fertility treatment (file image)
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, from Birmingham, 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.’
Rachel, 43, from Birmingham, whose third round of IVF was successful, said she was made redundant three months after returning to work (file image)
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.
I was sidelined and felt bullied and vulnerable
Yet she knew ‘if I told him the truth he would have made my life more difficult’. After all, her cut-throat 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.
Jill Steele, 45, was signed off sick by her GP after hearing how her colleagues had made sexist remarks while she was at a hospital appointment (file image)
‘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, one of the UK’s leading fertility law experts, 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 old-fashioned 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.’
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
Legally, you’re pregnant from the day your embryo is implanted, and are protected under pregnancy and maternity discrimination law. Before this, ‘you’d have to prove unfair treatment, which would be as an indirect sex discrimination claim’, says Gemma Wilson, a solicitor at Stephensons Solicitors. ‘There is no legal right to attend IVF sessions,’ she adds.
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.’
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.
Theresa Johnson, 35, from the South West of England, was told that she wasn’t performing ‘to the level expected’ after revealing her fertility treatment to her boss (file image)
‘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 £25,000, 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. In May, online bank Monzo introduced eight days of paid leave to employees undergoing treatment, for example, while last month U.S. law firm Cooley said its UK staff would be entitled to £45,000 for fertility treatment.
On average a woman will require nine days out of the office per IVF cycle, according to independent fertility nurse Kate Davies (file image)
Yet disregarding the fact that many women will be too afraid of being discriminated against to request their employers’ financial support, even these policies are often inadequate, says Davies.
‘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 from the South West of England, 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.’
Trudy Simpson, 35, from Nottingham, avoided telling her boss about having treatment because she had previously seen friends sidelined for revealing their pregnancy (file image)
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 the government-backed Employment Statutory Code of Practice suggests 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 orally-taken drug to stimulate egg production, it can cause nausea, bloating and mood swings.
‘My abdominal pain was excruciating,’ says Trudy, 35, from Nottingham. ‘But I’d seen friends sidelined at work simply for telling their bosses they were pregnant.’
Not eligible for treatment on the NHS because her husband had children from a previous marriage, the best nearest private 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.’
- Rachel, Theresa, Jill and Trudy’s names and some details have been changed.
- Kate Davies can be contacted via yourfertilityjourney.com. For advice visit pregnantthenscrewed.com