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Scientist bumped from conference for pregnancy: 'It's unbelievable'

British geneticist Samantha Decombel recently had her invitation to speak at a European scientific conference revoked not because of her qualifications, but for being seven months pregnant.

This week, months after getting the boot, Decombel received an apology via email. But the 35-year-old scientist and health expert says she wants the conference organizers to also issue a public apology, to help ensure that her experience doesn't happen to someone else.

“I'm still shocked at what happened. It’s a little bit unbelievable, isn’t it?” she told TODAY.com.

I hadn't expected to make a formal announcement of this on social media, but given the events of the last few weeks it feels like the right thing to do. I am pregnant. I am over the moon that myself and my partner will soon be welcoming our little girl into the world. I am also still the Chief Science Officer of @fitnessgenes and love my job. When I was invited to give a talk in #Brussels this week on #science and #entrepreneurship, I happily accepted, as it is a cause close to my heart. So you can imagine my shock when my invite was withdrawn by @europeancommission officials due to my being 7 months on 'health reasons'. As an advocate for our company I am in excellent health. Regardless, it 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. I invited them to reconsider, with a heartfelt and considered response. I didn't even get a reply. I emailed again, making them aware of how disappointed I was in this lack of response to such an important issue as pregnancy discrimination. They then tried to insist the withdrawal was due to other reasons, despite the strong evidence to the contrary. I felt I had no option but to escalate this further. The Sunday Times have picked up my story as an exclusive and I look forward to this issue finally being taken as seriously as I believe it should be. This type of discrimination is not only illegal, it discourages women from pursuing careers in science or business as they believe they have to make a choice between this and family. This should absolutely not be the case, and is too important to let go unchallenged. #discrimination #health #pregnant #pregnantinheels #pregnancy #pregnantgirlproblems #pregnancyproblems #femaleentrepreneur #womeninbusiness #girlboss #entrepreneurship #equality #science #womeninscience #feminism #leanin #Business #businesswomen #femalefounder #startup

A post shared by Dr. Samantha Decombel (@samdecombel) on

Decombel, 35, is the owner and chief scientific officer of FitnessGenes, which personalizes training and diet plans for customers based on their genetic traits. Last July, she was invited to give a lecture on research and entrepreneurship at a conference sponsored by the European Commission.

In the initial round of email with conference organizers, Decombel was upfront about the fact that she would be seven months pregnant during the conference, which began last week in Brussels. At one point, she was even congratulated on “the little one.”

Decombel, who who lives outside of Oxford, England, requested to travel to the conference by train instead of by air. But she suddenly found her invitation to speak pulled as conference organizers zeroed in on details of her travel logistics.

Courtesy of Samantha Decombel
Decombel earlier this year at a scientific presentation

“After a reflection 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,” according to a Sept. 4 email she received.

Decombel said she couldn’t believe what she was told.

“When I read the email originally, I reread it several times. And then I got my colleagues in the office to read it and assure me that I’m not overreacting,” she said. “Everyone said, ‘No, no, it’s unbelievable. They can’t do that.’”

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Decombel responded with a lengthy email to the European Commission but failed to get a response. She wrote again more than six weeks later and got a short reply that sidestepped the issue, prompting Decombel to describe her experience in an Instagram post Sunday.

Someone who read the post launched a #7monthsawesome campaign on Twitter, flooding the social media platform with photos and stories dispelling the notion that pregnancy is any kind of disability.

Courtesy of Samantha Decombel
Decombel during a recent workout

On Monday, the European Commission emailed Decombel a response, assuring her 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.”

In a statement to TODAY.com, the Commission went a step further and said the agency made a mistake.

“Dr. Decombel's story really flies in the face of the European Commission's own ‘DNA.’ We have written directly to Dr. Decombel to apologize for her regrettable experience,” according to the statement. "Something went wrong and we are sorry. We are looking to ensure that this inappropriate behavior won't happen again.”

Decombel said she still wants the European Commission to issue a public statement.

“They haven’t been very forthcoming in who [by] and why the decision was made. It’s all part of a very generic apology, I guess,” she said. “They did admit discrimination and said the usual, 'we remind all our staff that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen.’ But I’m not entirely happy with [the apology] and I’m discussing with my lawyer at the moment where we go next.”

For most pregnant women, traveling by plane is an individual decision that should be made with their physicians, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“In most cases, travel during pregnancy is safe. If you are planning a trip, it’s a good idea to check with your health care provider about safety measures to take during travel,” says the organization’s book “Your Pregnancy & Childbirth.” “Most women can travel safely until close to their due dates. Travel may not be recommended for women who have pregnancy complications, however.”

Follow TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.

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