Somaya Ouazzani, a legal recruiter, and Natalie Sutherland, a partner specialising in fertility law, explain how the industry needs a wholescale culture shift on the topic.
The rise in lawyers wanting to speak up about their fertility struggles has never been so noticeable. What for too long has been a silent, secret and lonely struggle is now becoming a movement of predominantly female lawyers talking out about the extent to which their professional and personal lives have collided, why and how work pressures have impacted negatively upon their fertility plans and, how the grief, sadness, and exhaustion they have experienced on their fertility journey has hindered their professional performance.
If only they could speak to a colleague, someone in their organisation, that could support them. Give them the latitude to take a breather. Allow them the chance to give their employer some context around what they are currently living and experiencing.
In our roles—as a partner search agent and a law firm partner specialising in fertility law—we have heard these heart-breaking stories time and again. We felt there had to be a wholescale culture shift to change the working environment for women (and men) in the legal profession facing fertility struggles.
From our combined desires to effect change, an event was conceived. In December 2021 at the London office of Sidley Austin, dozens of female lawyers and city professionals gathered to hear the personal stories of six highly successful women.
They told of how they lost twins before the 24 week stage when maternity leave would be legally protected; how they had to make the heart wrenching decision to have a termination for medical reasons; how they had to undergo international IVF procedures across two countries whilst navigating work with time off for appointments with doctors, acupuncturists, counsellors, fertility coaches; how a miscarriage and the resulting complications not only almost ended a life but secondary infertility followed and, how for others the challenge to conceive persists almost a decade later.
All these stories had interwoven into them how a professional working life was impacted by the added trauma of having to keep these issues a secret from work and a desire to ensure that no other professional women would have to experience this kind of disconnect and isolation.
The impact these stories had on the room was palpable. Many could not hold back tears; the nods of recognition were many and the questions to the speakers which followed showed a genuine interest in the personal and a desire to learn from their experiences.
The purpose of the event was to kick start a revolution and effect a wholescale culture shift in professional environments; to accept that women in powerful roles may not only have family building desires alongside their career aspirations (which they should not feel compelled to keep secret in order to further their careers), but may also struggle to realise that desire; and for employers to acknowledge that this is happening and that if they want to retain top talent, the culture needs to change, the pressure needs to ease and more meaningful conversations need to be had to ensure that the corporate world is better able to facilitate women’s professional and personal growth.
In response to many of these women speaking up we have seen the creation of fertility policies specifically curated to support those experiencing fertility challenges. We are also seeing the curation of pregnancy loss policies which purposefully respond to those employees experiencing a loss. Following the event, attendees have reported that they have gone back to their own HR departments to find out whether such policies exist, and if not, why not.
These developments, which have been long awaited and are much needed, are the result of bold and brave women speaking up about what they lacked and what they needed, the result being that women who follow benefit from the trail being blazed before them and the emergence of a new culture where fertility struggles are no longer taboo.
With time it is hoped that these thoughtful and bespoke policies will become the norm at all law firms that seek to properly acknowledge and support life events, and such policies will yield transformational results for lawyers and law firms alike.
It is policies of this kind that generate so much capital and goodwill between lawyer and law firm. Loyalty. Retention. Better performance. A more in-touch, empathetic and human management and board. The rewards and improvements to law firm culture cannot be underestimated.
This article was written by Somaya Ouazzani of Mimoza Fleur, a specialist legal partner search firm and Natalie Sutherland of Burgess Mee Family Law. Both authors live and work in London and are mothers to a four and six year old son and daughter respectively.
For more details on upcoming events and podcasts on the topic of Infertility in the City, click here.
The article was published in Law.Com and can be found here.
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