I thought it was a headline from The Onion: "Pregnant scientist bumped from conference." Sadly, the news was not satire, but a real headline about UK-based scientist (geneticist, to be exact), Dr. Samantha Decombel, who was—pardon the pun—bumped from a panel on research and entrepreneurship in Brussels. Dr. Decombel's company, PlayDNA, was featured on the BBC, which led to the invitation to appear at the EU-sponsored conference.
Dr. Decombel was scheduled to speak at the late November conference, but never got the chance. Her invitation to speak was withdrawn when, upon finalizing her travel plans, the organizers learned she was pregnant.
Emails from bureaucrats heading the conference informed Dr. Decombel: "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." Dr. Decombel, who is six months pregnant and hyper-fit, insists that she is more than capable of attending the conference.
The EU Commission refused to reconsider its position.
(It's) maddening for any mother who has watched her professional aspirations shrivel as her baby bump grows.
Dr. Decombel did not attend, but she's not taking it lying down, even though she's in the oh-so-fragile state of pregnancy. She's hired a law firm and considering legal action against the Commission for discriminating against her. She argues that "[t]urning away a pregnant speaker, who is in excellent health, seems to me to be the perfect demonstration of why this is still such an issue for many mothers, and the absolute opposite of what I would hope the European Commission would want to convey."
The facts are clear that this opportunity was taken away because of Dr. Decombel's pregnancy, which is maddening for any mother who has watched her professional aspirations shrivel as her baby bump grows. While it's disheartening to hear that this kind of retro-thinking that a woman's pregnancy poses an impediment to her ability to work and travel, we are lucky that Dr. Decombel is calling it out. She took to Instagram on Sunday to publicize her communications with the organizers.
She was not content to let the discrimination quietly unrecognized, which is a good thing. Because had she remained silent and acquiesced to the discrimination, that organization would be free to deny women at the next conference, and the one after that, on and on, until someone had the courage to speak up.
The Commission issued an apology with a statement that's a little hard to believe, given how they treated Dr. Decombel. Nevertheless, they insist that "[g]ender equality is a principle that we constantly seek to uphold ... including in science and business, where women are still underrepresented." Exactly. Now we know one of the many reasons why that happens over and over in science, business, law, entertainment and food service. It happens everywhere.
Here's hoping that the decision makers in this case understand that their actions barred a woman from participating in the scientific field and that next time, they must do better.