Pregnant scientist booted from conference lineup

samantha decombel new

You're uninvited because you're pregnant.

That's the message that one entrepreneur recently received.

In July, U.K.-based Samantha Decombel was invited to speak at a conference about science and entrepreneurship. Decombel, who earned her Ph.D. in genetics, is the cofounder of FitnessGenes. The company customizes diet and exercises plans based on people's genetic traits.

The event, organized by the Voice of Researchers Initiative and the European Commission Euraxess, was scheduled to be held in Brussels in November.

"It was an opportunity to be a pregnant speaker and show people that you can combine a scientific career, a career in business -- and it's not to be feared," Decombel, 35, told CNNMoney.

Initially, Decombel was in communication with a woman at the Voice of Researchers. Decombel told the woman she would be seven months pregnant and would prefer to travel by train instead of flying.

"I was treated with the utmost respect and courtesy by [her] when contacted and invited to speak, in full knowledge of my pregnancy," Decombel said.

But when it came time to actually book the travel, Decombel was put in touch with someone at the European Commission, which was footing the bill for speakers.

That's when things started to go awry. After Decombel reiterated that she wanted to travel by train because she was pregnant, she received an email revoking her invite.

"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," read the email, sent on September 4.

samantha decombel instory

"I was in complete shock. I reread it like five times," Decombel said, noting her surprise that a forward-thinking public body would take this type of action. "The opportunity was taken away due to my pregnancy."

She said she's "lucky" that it's one of her first experiences with gender discrimination, but was shocked that "this could still happen in this day in age."

She wrote a lengthy email to the Commission. She cited Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg, who has said that many women "leave before they have to leave" in anticipation of starting a family. This is effectively what the Commission is reinforcing, Decombel wrote.

"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," she wrote. "Turning away a pregnant speaker, who is in excellent health and has voluntarily agreed to travel ... seems to me to be the perfect demonstration of why this is still such an issue."

On Sunday, Decombel took to Instagram to publicize the correspondence.

"I felt it was too important an issue to let go that easily," said Decombel, who is expecting a baby girl in January. "I need to solicit a response to ensure that this situation doesn't happen again."

On Monday evening, she received an email apology from the European Commission, which said it is still getting to the bottom of the issue.

When contacted by CNNMoney, a spokesperson for the Commission apologized in a statement: "Gender equality is a principle that we constantly seek to uphold ... including in science and business, where women are still underrepresented. Every staff member has a standing obligation to defend and support gender equality."

The conference, scheduled to begin on November 26, was canceled as a result of the lockdown in Brussels.

CNNMoney Sponsors