There’s the “motherhood penalty”. 

And there’s the equally valid, but less acknowledged, “struggling to become a mother penalty”. 

The focus of this blog is the latter. But it has inextricable links to the former, as I allude to below.

Talented, high performing women, who are finding it difficult to conceive, miscarrying, and undergoing fertility treatments, are commonly:

  • Standing still in their careers.
  • Stepping back in their careers, either by reducing hours or relinquishing responsibilities.
  • Leaving the workplace altogether.
  • Losing confidence and withdrawing from their teams and projects.
  • Exhausting annual leave or sick leave to attend appointments and grieve baby losses, or otherwise just pushing on and pushing through.
  • Trying to do it all, do it brilliantly, and burning out.

And commonly this is happening without them making their employer aware of the fertility challenges they’re experiencing.


Because they fear:

  • Additional responsibility will come at the price of additional pressure, expectation and stress, and less understanding, flexibility, and support, which in turn will jeopardise their chances of success on their fertility journey.
  • Being negatively judged for having priorities outside of work, and needs that need to be met to attend to those priorities. 
  • Being earmarked as a nuisance, a burden, on the “mummy track” and “checked out” of their career.
  • Getting overlooked for promotions or other development opportunities.
  • Being exposed to the “motherhood penalty” before they’re a mother, with no guarantee of becoming a mother.
  • Being forced to choose between a career and the potential to become a mother, again, with no guarantee of becoming a mother.

Furthermore, they:

  • Have no visible role models for navigating the challenges they are experiencing.
  • Have no evidence of anyone receiving support in similar circumstances.
  • Have no confidence that if they were to seek support, their circumstances would be understood, and their needs met.
  • Feel very isolated, unsupported and alone.
  • Feel the pressure to be grateful for the role they have, to prove it, and to conform to outdated cultures and practices that in today’s workplaces, serve very few.

This is especially the case in organisations that aren’t:

  • Acknowledging that fertility is a workplace matter.
  • Promoting open discussions about the matter.
  • Equipping their managers with the knowledge and skills they need to have the discussions.
  • Exploring more flexible and compassionate working practices and benefits that enable employees to bring their whole selves to work.
  • Introducing policies that manage employee expectations and guide managers in relation to the support which may be made available.

I know this because;

  • I’ve been one of these women.
  • I’ve heard it time and time again from my coaching clients.
  • I’ve heard it time and time again from guests on the In/Fertility in the City podcast I co-founded.
  • I’ve read about it in the media.
  • It’s reflected in survey after survey and statistic after statistic.

And if it’s surveys and statistics you like, then take a note of this:

  • In a survey of individuals experiencing fertility issues, conducted by Fertifa and Fertility Network UK (FNUK) in 2021, 46% of respondents said that they experienced a negative impact on their relationship with their colleagues or their manager.
  • A further survey by Fertifa and FNUK in 2023 found that 30% of respondents took time off work for fertility treatment without telling their employer the real reason why. Almost 1 in 5, (18%), left their jobs because of the impact treatment had on their jobs.
  • In April 2023, research carried out by Pregnant Then Screwed in partnership with Women in Data, found that out of 3540 respondents, 42% revealed to their employer that they were having fertility treatment. Of those, 24% said that they received no additional support at work. The same proportion said that they were subsequently treated unfairly. Only 29% told their employer when they experienced pregnancy loss and 22% of these women said that they went on to suffer unfair treatment following their disclosure.

Regretfully, it all adds up to another blow for gender parity. Its prohibiting a rise in female leadership, and a reduction in the pay gap.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Actively supporting women on a fertility journey could make a real difference. You can do that by:

  • Educating your managers, HR teams and wider workforce on fertility challenges, their relevance in the workplace, and best practice for providing support to those who need it.
  • Introducing or improving your fertility and baby loss policies.
  • Providing access to various forms of practical, mental, emotional, social, and financial support.

None of this needs to blow your budgets. Some of it can be achieved at no, or low, cost.

And you don’t need to do it alone. These are all matters I can help you with.

And you don’t need to do it all at once either. If you’re unsure where to start, then I can guide you.

The “struggling to become a mother penalty”, like the “motherhood penalty”, won’t be eroded overnight. But it could be eroded over time, starting with one small action today.

What action will you take?

Emma Menzies | 08 March 2024

Copyright © 2024 Emma Menzies t/a Ready Steady Coach

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