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Female Infertility: how school leaders can do better to support women in the workplace

Female Infertility: how school leaders can do better to support women in the workplace

By Mrs. Sarah Mullen  @BCAMrsMullen

In 2007 I was diagnosed with unexplained infertility. At the time I was a middle leader, newly married and the diagnosis hit me hard. What followed was 5 years of fertility treatment, miscarriages, ectopic pregnancy and a gruelling adoption process, all whilst still trying to forge a career in education.

Today in 2023, I hold the position of Vice Principal in a secondary school and am a mum to a quite wonderful 12-year-old boy but this journey has taken its toll on my mental health and career aspirations. 

On reflection, the stress, responsibility and accountability that comes with fertility treatment is too similar to that often experienced as a headteacher and not something I feel I have the strength to do at this stage of my life. 

Would things have been different had more workplace support been available back then? 

Possibly. 

My career was halted for 5 years. There was no encouragement from senior leaders to apply for internal (or indeed, external) promotions when undergoing fertility treatment and whilst I am proud of my career achievements over the past 27 years, I cannot escape the feeling that somewhere along the way, I was cast out into the wilderness.

Infertility remains taboo despite the fact that in 2020 it was the 5th highest global disability among women. There is a social stigma attached to it that doesn't exist around others diseases and as a result, workplaces don't always know how to support women who are infertile. In fact, research shows that there are still a significant proportion of women who haven't disclosed their diagnosis to employers or felt able to broach the need for time off to attend medical appointments.

Having recently completed an MSc.in Education and Leadership, I have conducted my own research into the impact of female infertility on the career advancement of women and drawn the following conclusions:

  1. Fertility treatment has a strong effect on women both physically and mentally which impacts their work as a teacher and their attitude towards the workplace.
  2. Psychological safety at work is important for infertile women.
  3. Work can help women cope with infertility struggles but it does impact career decisions.
  4. The workplace can do better to ensure women undergoing fertility treatment feel supported with both their physical and mental health but also their careers.

Clearly, there is a need for school leaders to recognise infertility as a disease and to ensure HR protocols are in place to support employees, not only with their physical and mental well-being, but also with their continued professional development. 

As a starting point, school leaders could revisit their current policies around reproductive health and review their protocols around time off for fertility appointments.

Fertility treatment is not elective. It is a necessary treatment for anyone infertile women who wishes to conceive a biological child. Appointment dates and times are often dependent on the individual's response to medication and therefore cannot be scheduled around the school day. 

Fertility treatment is also expensive, with the average cost of one cycle between £4,000 and £6,000 so having the reassurance of knowing that appointments will not have to be taken as unpaid or queried would provide a welcome layer of psychological safety.

Training for school leaders and HR managers around infertility is available as part of a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion but currently only 4% of employers provide fitting training around how to support staff undergoing IVF. Small changes such as ensuring those undertaking fertility treatment are forewarned about a baby announcement in briefing and given the option not to attend or actively encouraging women who are undertaking fertility treatment to apply for roles within the workplace that advance their careers could make a significant difference to the wellbeing of a woman experiencing infertility.

Female infertility is difficult, complex and emotionally charged. It requires strength, humility and resilience – ironically, the very qualities we admire in school leaders. 

If we are ever to close the gap between female and male leaders in education, then recognising that female infertility doesn't have to derail a career would be a huge step in the right direction.

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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