Scientist ‘uninvited’ from EU meeting because she’s pregnant

Dr Samantha Decombel was due to give a talk at a health conference at 7 months pregnant until she was dropped with this email…

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A scientist who was asked to speak at the European Commission says she was ‘uninvited’ when organisers found out she was pregnant.

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Diet and fitness expert Dr Samantha Decombel was initially asked to talk at the health conference, which took place in Brussels last week, but had her invitation withdrawn when she revealed she would need to travel by train because she would be 7 months pregnant.

Some airlines ask for a note from your doctor if you want to fly past 28 weeks, so she asked if she could get to Brussels by Eurostar.

In an email, organisers told the British scientist they were not “very enthusiastic to take a risk for her health making her travel to Brussels at the late stage of her pregnancy”.

Sharing an extract of her response, Dr Decombel – who is expecting a little girl in January – told them that she “voluntarily agreed to travel” and was “in excellent health”.

She wrote: “I was invited to speak at this year’s conference in Brussels as a young female scientist and entrepreneur, who has set up two companies and raised over £1M in funding and grants to support the research around our ideas. As this is an area I am passionate about I agreed to speak and offer my experiences and views.

As I am sure you are aware, one of the key hurdles facing many women in science and entrepreneurship is the desire to start a family, and how this will fit in with their career plans. As @sherylsandberg, COO of Facebook, has said in the past, so many women ‘leave before they leave’ in anticipation of starting a family due to the guilt of juggling these two apparently contradictory options, taking on less responsibility within their role, taking a back seat in key decision-making and effectively putting the brakes on their career prospects before they actually need to, ensuring that on their return to work they are already at a disadvantage.

I do not intend to put the brakes on my ambitions until I need to, and would encourage others to consider why we lay this guilt on female researchers that wish to have both a career and a family. Turning away a pregnant speaker, who is in excellent health and has voluntarily agreed to travel to voice her opinions at this event seems to me to be the perfect demonstration of why this is still such an issue for many, and the absolute opposite of what I would hope the European Commission would want to convey.

I cannot see what risk my presence at this event would represent for the EC, and hope you will reconsider your decision to withdraw my voice on account of what should be considered a perfectly natural occurance that likely around half of your audience will experience at some stage in their lives.

I would hope that they would not be encouraged to ‘leave before they leave’ on account of having made the choice to start their own family”.

Dr Decombel didn’t receive a reply to her email – but is now considering suing the European Commission.

A spokesman for the European Commission said, “We have learned about the highly unfortunate experience that Dr Sam Decombel had when her planned participation in the Euraxess conference was not confirmed.

“We have written to Dr Decombel to express our apologies for the lack of professionalism with which contacts with her were handled. Gender equality is a principle that we constantly seek to uphold and promote across the board, internally and externally – including in science and business, where women are still underrepresented. 

“We will contact Dr Decombel again shortly, once we have got to the bottom of this.” 

Dr Decombel’s story prompted other pregnant women to join in and share photos of what they can do while pregnant with the hashtag #7monthsawesome.

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