Imagine a health condition that is deeply personal, involves profound losses and requires you to travel to an out-of-town clinic several times a week. It may last for weeks, months, even years – but you’re afraid to tell your employer.
“A growing number of women have to face this situation when they receive an infertility diagnosis. In fact, 1 in 6 Canadian couples are affected by infertility,” says Nada Basir (BSc ’05), a professor in the Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business. So, Basir and her colleague, Serena Sohrab, launched the Infertility and Work Lab to understand how infertility affects work and to better inform women, government policy and organizational practices. Without a new culture of support around infertility, employers will continue to lose talent. And women, struggling in silence, will continue to face barriers that have lasting impacts on their careers, Basir says.
Some women we talked to didn’t ask for a promotion, declined being on a project, or left the workforce entirely because they were in work environments that made it too difficult to manage both their fertility treatment and their work.
“Some women we talked to didn’t ask for a promotion, declined being on a project, or left the workforce entirely because they were in work environments that made it too difficult to manage both their fertility treatment and their work.”
Women fear career consequences
The team recently interviewed more than 40 professional women who have undergone fertility treatments while working full-time and found that women often didn’t disclose their situation to employers for several reasons: infertility felt too personal and intimate; the stigma of experiencing infertility and a general fear of career consequences.
“Women don’t want to be passed up for a promotion or a new project,” Basir says. “They also may not get the support, flexibility or understanding around why they need to leave suddenly or are coming in late. Disclosure also brings co-workers into their personal life in ways that may cause them to relate to them differently.”
Society has become aware of the “motherhood penalty” for millions of women but Basir points out that infertility adds additional obstacles that even new mothers don’t have to navigate in the workplace. “Infertility poses a unique challenge in that it is concealable. People eventually know when a woman is pregnant. And yes, even though we know women can be penalized for this, there is a feeling of celebration. This is not the case with infertility.”
Unanticipated life events have outsized impacts on careers
Basir’s research on infertility has inspired her to consider what she calls other “concealable, unanticipated, life events” that, like infertility, have outsized impacts on a person’s well-being and career. “Imagine, someone going through a very nasty divorce or a marriage falling apart, or perhaps an abusive relationship, or a child’s drug addiction. These personal, stressful, consuming life events – that we could technically conceal while we’re at work – affect our work, our day-to-day and even our identity.”
Basir herself recalls how having a miscarriage deeply affected her and her work for four or five months: “I just did not take it as well as I thought I would.”
The organizations that are going to succeed in attracting the best talent and retaining them are going to have to think about: ‘How do we support this talent when life happens?
In addition to the emotional toll, Basir says, people going through a divorce, for example, experience the additional administrative toll of scheduling lawyer and counselling appointments and the cognitive toll of thinking about what needs to get done, while at work.
“What I think frustrates me the most is that with motherhood or infertility, our organizations, and really society in general, have made it so that women many times feel like they have to make a choice … Sometimes it’s as drastic as, ‘Do I work or do I focus on being a mother?’ or in the case of infertility, ‘Do I continue to work, or do I focus all my energy on trying to become a mother?’”
While Basir hopes her research will support a culture change in society, she says the changes will be good for the bottom line as well. “The organizations that are going to succeed in attracting the best talent and retaining them are going to have to think about: ‘How do we support this talent when life happens?’”