This Pregnant Woman Banned From Conference She Was Supposed To Speak At & Now She's Calling Them Out
Dr. Samantha Decombel is a geneticist and entrepreneur in the U.K. who was scheduled to speak at the EURAXESS Voice of the Researchers conference in Brussels in November. In September, the scientist was shocked to receive an email in which she was disinvited from the conference because she was pregnant. After failing to receive a satisfying explanation from the European Commission (EC) as to why she was no longer welcome, Decombel took her story to social media, arguing that decisions like these — dictating a woman’s limitations without her input — impede women’s ability to excel in the sciences. Women in STEM fields all over the world have since chimed in under the #7monthsawesome hashtag to share the amazing things they’ve managed to accomplish while being (gasp!) pregnant at the same time.
According to Nature, Decombel, who has founded two companies based on her genetics research, was first invited to the EURAXESS Voice of the Researchers conference in July. She accepted the invitation, which included paid travel expenses, and informed the conference organizers that she would be seven months pregnant by the time the conference rolled around in November, a fact with which the organizers didn’t appear to have a problem.
Things began to fall apart in September, however, when she attempted to set up travel arrangements. Decombel planned to make the journey by train, rather than fly, because of her pregnancy. (One can travel between the UK and Brussels by rail in only a few hours). However, she received an email from an official saying that the EC was revoking her invitation because of concerns about her health. The email stated, in part:
[A]fter a reflexion, our colleagues from the European Commission are not very enthusiastic to take a risk for your health making you travel to Brussels at the late stage of your pregnancy.
As Decombel explained in an Instagram post, the EC official's decision to make choices regarding a pregnant woman's health was beyond inappropriate. She wrote, “[I]t should be my choice, as it should be any woman's choice, as to whether to participate in events at this later stage of pregnancy.”
She wrote what she describes as “a heartfelt and considered response” to ask the EC to reinstate her invitation, to which she did not receive a reply. When pressed, the organization gave her other reasons for its decision; she told Nature, “None of [these reasons] were credible in any way.”
In her email to the EC, Decombel makes the point that the decision to remove her from the conference program because of her advanced pregnancy sets a bad precedent. Women are woefully underrepresented in STEM fields, and a lack of support for pregnant women and women with children contributes to the problem. She writes,
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. …
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…
At the end of November, Decombel shared the September email from the EC on social media, along with excerpts from her response. The EC has since apologized to Decombel via email and Twitter. Robert-Jan Smits, director general of research and innovation for the EC, wrote, “I can assure you that 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.”
The Voice of the Researchers clarified to BuzzFeed News that they were not involved in the decision to rescind Decombel’s invitation, and added that they “believe in the resourcefulness of pregnant women, and are aware of the challenges faced.” (Ultimately, the conference was canceled, due to the November terrorist attacks in Paris.)
If there is a silver lining to this situation, it can be found in the #7monthsawesome hashtag. Women from a variety of fields are taking to social media to share the things they’ve accomplished while pregnant. Their testimonies show that pregnancy isn’t a barrier to doing remarkable, challenging things.
As Twitter user @LKluber rightly points out, being “awesome” during pregnancy doesn’t mean that you have to be digging up artifacts in the desert or doing field research. Pregnant women have many ways of being awesome, and some require different types of care than others. The important thing is that they and their doctors get to decide what is best for them.