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Fertility and family friendly workplaces: Iris’s head of people on how to flip the script


By Laura Blackwell, Content Executive

January 3, 2023 | 6 min read

Is the notion that women must choose between a career and children exacerbated by employers? We sat down with Michelle Joseph of Iris to unpack dated perspectives on pregnancy in the workplace.

Pregnant couple

Are workplaces partly responsible for archaic views on parenthood? / Toa Heftiba via Unsplash

Historically, prioritizing between family and work has been a fraught issue for women. Three out of five millennials even said they were willing to delay life events such as having children until they had reached a certain career milestone.

HR's role is rooted in culture and a responsibility to keep conversations about these issues open and flowing. It's a role that Michelle Joseph, head of people at global agency Iris, embraces – especially around issues like menopause and endometriosis that are all too often bypassed by the education system. “You’re not educated until it happens", says Joseph. "When you realize what the [menopause] symptoms can be and how women can feel, I feel there is a need to tell people about it”.

The F word

When it comes to understanding our own biology, women are perpetually playing catch-up. Joseph knows this fact all too well as a parent who is perimenopausal.

For Joseph, the subject of fertility — and whether the company could accommodate its employees going through pregnancy — was non-negotiable. “I just don’t see how we can say to someone ‘no, not on our time’”, she says regarding any employee’s decision to start a family. In cases where employees are undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF), the company is mindful that they may have to fit their work around injections and hospital appointments. “It’s an all-consuming treatment”, Joseph stresses. “These guys are on a schedule”.

Most of the time, it’s not about making extreme adjustments, but rather a willingness to be flexible, which is a two-way street. The way Iris works, Joseph says, is “you tell us what you need, and we’ll work with you the best way we can”. Everyone has a life outside of work — and choosing to have children is life-altering, albeit made more possible in recent years with the global shift to hybrid working. As Joseph says, matter-of-factly, “I don’t see how, as an employer, you can deny someone that”.

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An educational gap

Through being an ally to her colleagues, Joseph says that she has been met with a barrage of learnings about her own anatomy, and pregnancy, illuminating some of the larger issues at play.

“There are miscarriages and stillbirths and the differences. I found it all really fascinating. If your baby’s born before a certain time, it’s a miscarriage, whereas if it’s after a certain time it’s a stillbirth; and if it’s a stillbirth you get maternity leave, but if it’s a miscarriage you don’t".

For mothers of premature babies, Iris offers additional (currently unpaid) maternity leave to compensate for the time lost. "That was a big realization for me", she says. "You have this baby way ahead of the time you expect to and then you spend so much of your maternity leave in a neonatal unit, and however many months you’re in hospital, you lose that time with them”.

“It was a real ‘money where our mouth is’ moment”

When Iris hired creative director Laura Randall while she was pregnant, and honored paid maternity leave, it sent other employees a message: that the company does what it says it's going to do.

"I think it was about her being the right fit and our strategy for D&I, and being 'for the forward'", Joseph explains. "We understand people want to have families and we want to be an inclusive agency, and I just don't see how not giving her the role when she ticks every single box other than 'she's going to go off for potentially a year' is a reason to not hire her". This subtle act of rebellion gestures to Iris' existing and future employees that if they do choose to start a family, their jobs will be safe.

Whether limiting beliefs around family and work arise as a result of external influences or financial situations, employers have a duty to provide adequate support where they can — only then do we have a shot at changing the narrative, and in doing so, empowering women to stop putting their lives on hold.

Closing the Gap is a series shining a light on issues around underrepresentation and the work agency leaders are doing to advocate for change.

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