Anyone who is trying to conceive, either naturally or through assisted means, knows that if unsuccessful first or second time, the stakes are raised and the desire for a baby exponentially increases, with the likelihood that it becomes all consuming. Throw into the mix a successful and demanding career, it is often extremely challenging to juggle the realities of undergoing (often) invasive fertility treatment with the 9-5.
The culture in law firms sees female lawyers often having to hide not only their wish to become mothers, for fear of committing career suicide, but also concealing any fertility struggles for fear of being seen as failing and weak. Over a coffee one sunny autumn day, we discussed our own harrowing fertility issues and decided that we both wanted to do something.
Somaya's knowledge gained through working with senior female lawyers in her partner recruitment work gave her unique and uncensored insights into how and why so many professional women feel their personal and professional lives collide in this way. As a fertility law specialist Natalie has professional experience of clients undergoing the same issues. Our different but complimentary professional and personal experiences led us to the idea of opening up the conversation about fertility issues in the workplace, by harnessing the power of personal stories, with the aim of creating a revolution, breaking the silence and ending the stigma of fertility issues in the legal profession.
From this idea, 'In/Fertility in the City' was born. In December 2021 our first in-person panel event was held in the London offices of US law firm Sidley Austen. Against a backdrop of the Gherkin and the city skyline, six highly successful women honestly and courageously shared their own devastating and inspiring stories with a room full of strangers who all listened intently and often with unashamed tears. Amongst the panellists and chairs alone, more than a dozen pregnancy losses were mentioned, and decades of fertility failure, shame, and trauma. Medical terminations, recurrent miscarriage, ectopic pregnancies, twin loss, and near life threatening haemorrhaging post miscarriage, were just some of the stories shared. These accounts were raw, real and resonated with so many in the audience.
We felt strongly that the event needed to be in person, so that the impact of these profound stories could be experienced collectively. The audience was made up of women (and one man!), mostly lawyers, some of whom shared their own fertility struggles during the Q and A and some who wanted to understand how they can better support friends, family and colleagues going through similar experiences.
The event was as informative and impactful as we had hoped. We learned how some firms have implemented specific fertility and pregnancy loss policies, giving those who are impacted by these issues much needed time off for appointments as well as leave. The time to work through, and process, critical stages of one's fertility journey cannot be underestimated the panellist unanimously agreed. We learned how the use of language in such policies plays a vital role in conveying understanding and empathy and to ensure that such policies are fit for purpose and not just 'virtue signalling'.
Natalie proudly shared that she has become Burgess Mee's first fertility officer – a dedicated point of contact for any employees who wish to discuss fertility issues they are experiencing so that the firm can assist in making that journey easier and to provide support at work. The aim is to create a wholly open culture where discussion of family building and time off for fertility appointments is as common as discussing requests for annual leave.
Somaya explained to the audience how sharing with prospective employers a senior candidate's plans to expand their family in the near future, and even immediately, is no longer the deal breaker it once was. By way of example, law firms are now agreeing to match the maternity provisions of the candidate's exiting firms even if the statutory minimum length of service does not apply. She also explained how many law firms are now enhancing their benefits packages to include fertility funding such as fertility 'MOTs' (a benefit Somaya feels strongly should be renamed), egg freezing and contributions towards fertility treatment costs.
Following the event, attendees told us that they immediately questioned whether their own firms had fertility or baby loss policies, or a fertility officer or women's officer. And if not, why not? The ripple effect has also reached the Bar, as one attendee, a barrister, has raised the issue with her chambers and hopes to create a similar culture shift among barristers, although being self-employed the issues are admittedly more complex.
Overall, the response to what was a first of its kind event for the legal world was excellent. The conversations continue and there is genuine and widespread desire from lawyers to keep the dialogue open, respond to this vital, and long overdue fertility discourse. We must ensure that lawyers who are trudging through what can be a difficult and all-consuming fertility journey, are acknowledged, supported and responded to with understanding and compassion. We would like to see a framework that provides the benefits and resources to support women, as opposed to forcing them to rely all too often on corporate goodwill and firm discretion.