Natalie Sutherland shares her experiences and views on the importance of fertility friendly firms
In November 2022, my firm Burgess Mee Family Law became the first UK employer to attain Fertility Friendly accreditation through Fertility Matters at Work (FMAW), a community interest company that seeks to ensure fertility is recognised and supported in all organisations. The accreditation followed my appointment as Burgess Mee’s Fertility Officer in September 2021, which resulted from a discussion at a partners’ meeting about how best to support our junior staff who might be considering starting a family.
Prior to this meeting, where I shared my own fertility challenges and my desire to create a more open culture for young solicitors wishing to start a family while maintaining their career, the discussion about fertility and its impact on people in work was practically non-existent in the legal world. That was not because people weren’t having those challenges, but because people were keeping them secret, for various reasons such as shame, stigma and fear of it negatively affecting their career.
In December 2021, Somaya Ouazzani, founder and CEO of legal recruitment firm Mimoza Fleur, and I organised and hosted an in-person panel event entitled In/Fertility in the City. We wanted to shine a light on these challenges by sharing our own experiences and inviting our panellists to do the same, so that the audience would take that learning back to their own firms to improve experiences for their staff going through similar situations. By sharing stories, we firmly believed we could help to break down the silence surrounding these taboo subjects and inspire others to be bold and courageous.
The FMAW accreditation process
Taking part in the FMAW accreditation process, which involved all of Burgess Mee’s staff undergoing specialist training, was the natural next step. The e-learning covered the various aspects of infertility, what undergoing IVF and fertility treatment involves – both physically and emotionally – and how better to support colleagues going through these issues. The feedback from the staff was that the course was informative and useful, not only for helping colleagues, but also their friends and family members who were experiencing these issues.
Integral to achieving accreditation were our various fertility policies. FMAW believes, as does Burgess Mee, that having policies that explicitly state what support is available to employees undergoing fertility treatment is paramount. Indeed, it shows staff that not only have you, the employer, acknowledged that they might be going through fertility treatment, but also that you have considered how best to support them. According to research undertaken by FMAW, seven in ten employees took sick leave to attend fertility appointments. Such secrecy is stressful and, from a people management perspective, more difficult to manage than a planned absence.
FMAW is working with some incredible companies who want to learn how to be fertility friendly for the benefit of their employees. Hertility Health is another pioneering female-founded company offering training to companies wishing to become ‘reproductively responsible.’ Recently, the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS), in collaboration with Best Beginnings, also launched their own training and accreditation scheme for employers called ‘Reproductive Health in the Workplace.’ This follows PTS’s research that found most women don’t tell their employers that they are undergoing fertility treatment and, of those who do, one in four experience discrimination or disadvantage.
FMAW and I are also working with Nickie Aiken MP on her Private Member’s Bill which aims to change employment law to guarantee employees the right to paid time off to attend fertility-related appointments (there is no such law at the moment, which is why such policies are all the more important). We are also supporting Nickie in encouraging companies to sign up to the Fertility Workplace Pledge now, before the law is changed.
The conversation around fertility in the workplace is getting louder. The second In/Fertility in the City event, held in July last year, was attended by 120 solicitors, barristers and HR professionals, many of whom were inspired to be the pioneers in their own organisations in order to effect change. In/Fertility in the City is also now an award-winning podcast, where legal and other professionals share their fertility stories, struggles and the impact on their working lives.
Increasingly, employers are realising that supporting employees who are experiencing fertility challenges may be one of the most important things they can do to attract and retain talent. Millennials and Gen Z, the future of your firms, will expect these policies as a given. The time is right for all law firms, and all employers, to become fertility friendly.
Natalie Sutherland is a partner at Burgess Mee Family Law
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