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Charlotte Gentry, an entrepreneur, was spurred to start her network for fertility issues after her own four-year IVF journey.
When Charlotte Gentry was going through her four-year IVF journey, which lasted from 2016 until her son was born in 2020, she often fell down internet rabbit holes while trying to find reliable information.
“There’s a lot of noise out there. And there’s a lot of people professing to do things that they [don’t] do,” says Gentry (pictured above left), an entrepreneur who runs a corporate events company.
“I had my first and only child at the age of 45, but it took me four years to get to that. I think that my time could have been halved, if I’d known exactly what I needed to do, exactly what my chances were, and exactly what my statistics were.”
Gentry’s experiences spurred her to set up The IVF Network, an online hub for people who are having or considering fertility treatment. The issue is often considered taboo despite being common – around 1 in 7 couples may have difficulty conceiving, according to the NHS.
Gentry describes The IVF Network, which was founded two years ago and now has around 3,500 members, as a “knowledge hub”. People can sign up for free or paid subscription packages. Employers can buy a package that provides network membership for their staff.
Members can then access a library of video clips, where medical specialists explain topics such as post-40 fertility, egg-freezing, male fertility, and LGBTQ paths to parenthood. They can also attend monthly “ask the expert” sessions to ask specific questions, plus “safe space” sessions where members share experiences with each other.
The NHS only offers IVF to patients who meet certain criteria, and these criteria also vary by region, so it is common for people to seek private treatment. Gentry says her network thus aims to provide members with information and expert opinions, so they can make choices and prepare for often-expensive appointments in advance.
She adds that bitesize videos also allow people to take in information at their own pace. “They may not be hearing what’s being told to them in an initial [appointment], because they’re a bit frazzled, because they didn’t expect to be in this situation in the first place.”
Many employers are showing a growing awareness about how they can support staff in these situations. Fertility treatments can be emotionally and physically draining, as well as involving multiple appointments.
A number of employers have launched fertility policies in recent years – for example, the banking group NatWest subsidises some treatments, the supermarket chain Co-op offers paid leave for appointments, and the energy company Centrica has a staff network on the topic. Some employers have even worked towards being accredited as “fertility-friendly”.
Gentry is passionate about bosses providing support, as she experienced first-hand how hard it was to manage IVF alongside a career. “One of the key issues is trying to combine your fertility journey [with] your career…rather than having to treat your fertility challenge as if it’s a [full-time] job of its own,” she says.
One of the key issues is trying to combine your fertility journey [with] your career…rather than having to treat your fertility challenge as if it’s a [full-time] job of its own.
However, despite recent progress, there is still some way to go. While over three-quarters (77%) of workers dealing with fertility issues disclosed it to their employer, less than half of this group said “reasonable adjustments” were then offered, according to a survey last year by Fertility Network UK and Middlesex University.
These adjustments included access to a fridge for medications, access to a quiet space for injections, and the ability to take unscheduled calls from a clinic.
“I think [one] of the problems that businesses have is that…unless you’ve been through the process of fertility treatment, you don’t really understand it, which is totally understandable,” Gentry says. To address this, she offers workshops for employers, in order to help line-managers understand fertility treatments and their impacts.
The overall direction of travel seems positive, with more employers stepping up and more employees being open. Other women’s health and reproductive health issues, including baby loss and menopause, are also starting to feature in workplace policies.
“Having to have fertility treatment is not a choice,” says Gentry. “Businesses are being forced to recognise that it’s a medical [issue], as opposed to something that anybody’s choosing to go through.”