British geneticist Samantha Decombel, Ph.D., was honored and excited to speak at November’s European Commission conference in Brussels – but the Oxford-based scientist never got the chance.
On Sept. 4 she received an email unceremoniously rescinding her invitation. Apparently conference organizers became concerned about her pregnancy and the “risk for [her] health” if she were to make the four-hour train trip two months before her due date.
“I was shocked and a little bit in disbelief,” Decombel, 35, tells PEOPLE. “I re-read the email several times, and then asked my colleagues to have a look, too, to ensure I wasn’t overreacting.”
The chief science officer of genetics company FitnessGenes, Decombel wrote back immediately to inquire about the commission’s decision. She reached out again two months later when she had still received no response.
“I became quite frustrated and angry at the lack of acknowledgement to what I saw as a very serious issue,” she says. “This type of discrimination is not only illegal, it also discourages women from pursuing careers in science and business.”
Finally giving up on her commission contacts, Decombel took her story public in late November on Instagram and with a front-page story in London’s The Sunday Times. Two days later, the European Commission’s Director General for Reseach called and emailed Decombel, and the EC tweeted an apology.
The council also issued a public, formal apology, which it shared with PEOPLE.
“Gender equality is a principle that we constantly seek to uphold and promote across the board, particularly in the field of science and business, where women are still underrepresented,” a spokeswoman for the European Commission said in the statement. “So 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. Something went wrong and we are sorry. We are looking to ensure that this inappropriate behaviour won’t happen again.”
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“I realized the issue was so much more prevalent than I had ever anticipated,” she says. “I had many fears when I made my story public; anxieties that all too often prevent women from coming forward on these issues for fear of bringing attention to themselves, being labelled a ‘whistle-blower’ and potentially having their career sabotaged as a result. I was lucky, if you can call it that. I had hard evidence in the form of an email that confirmed my story. Many women do not. It is their word against another’s word.”
“The idea that a public body should have the authority to make decisions on a woman’s behalf concerning her health and the health of her baby is just astonishing to me. It infantilizes women and suggests that as soon as we become pregnant we become incapable of making rational decisions on our own behalf.”
But something good has come out of the conflict: A few Twitter users created the hashtag #7MonthsAwesome to support Decombel. Now women all over the globe are using #7MonthsAwesome to accompany photos of their accomplishments while pregnant.
“Such a disheartening incident was turned on its head into such a positive and inspirational campaign on Twitter,” says Decombel.
Decombel says she’s thrilled that the incident created a public forum for other mothers.
“The experience gave me the opportunity to open a dialogue on a very important and often overlooked issue,” she says. “I hope it will encourage both women and men to feel more confident about challenging assumptions around pregnancy and motherhood, and make people more thoughtful about how they treat pregnant women.”