An Australian neuroscientist has called for an end to “benevolent sexism” after being removed from a speaking event when organisers discovered she would be weeks away from giving birth.

Pregnant with her second child, University of Sydney’s Dr Muireann Irish had been booked to speak at a charity lunch about her dementia research and experience of working in STEM when she was told by the organisers in January they would be finding another speaker.

“Just to really underscore the irony of the whole thing, this was for a women’s luncheon where they had specifically sought me out as a speaker to talk about my research and what it's like to be a woman in science,” Irish told Healthcare IT News Australia in an exclusive interview.

The Associate Professor of Psychology at USyd’s Brain and Mind Centre, who maps the relationship between structural and functional brain networks, said she informed the organisers about her pregnancy but never imagined the outcome.

“I emailed and said in the spirit of transparency I just want to let you know that it will be a few weeks before my due date but I don't think there’ll be any problems. It’s a textbook pregnancy, my second pregnancy. Really, I had been hoping that they might offer a Cabcharge voucher in my naivete. They went silent for a day and then I received an email the following day.”

Irish said she was told a replacement speaker would be arranged.

“They said, ‘We don't want to put any additional pressure on you at this time.’ To which I replied that I was disappointed because there would be no problem and we could always arrange for a back-up speaker in the very rare occurrence something happened. Then they just replied again with the same: ‘We'd like you to enjoy your pregnancy and we don't want to put pressure on you.’ And that was that.”

The lunch, which is due to go ahead later this year, is designed to boost the visibility of women scientists.

“With that in mind I actually wanted to highlight to them that I was coming along in the last trimester of pregnancy because I actually wanted to show that women all around me and all around the world continue to work at a really high level, to be really productive and to do these forms of outreach and engagement. And I actually thought it was more a celebration of women continuing to thrive and be productive even while they’re in the final few weeks of pregnancy.”

The cognitive neuroscience researcher said she was “shocked” and “upset” by her removal from the line-up and tweeted out the news.

Her dispatch sparked a Twitter storm, with expressions of outrage and stories shared by women of similar experiences.

“I realised the magnitude of rage and shock that people felt about this.”

But Irish also received backlash from both men and women, including from those who said women need to keep personal information to themselves to avoid career setbacks.

“Not everybody agreed that it was a bad thing. They were saying that the conference organisers were fine to be risk averse. Then other people weighed in and told me that I shouldn't have been transparent and that oversharing is a female problem and that we need to hold back on personal information.”

According to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, 49 per cent of mothers experience discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work, and it is against the law. 

“Under the Sex Discrimination Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against a woman because she is pregnant or might become pregnant. Pregnancy discrimination happens when a woman is treated less favourably than another person because she is pregnant or because she may become pregnant,” Jenkins said in a statement.

Yet it still occurs. From 1 July 2017 to 1 March 2018, the Commission received 47 complaints alleging pregnancy discrimination.

It’s the “benevolent sexism” that Irish is particularly calling out, saying discrimination in the guise of kindness or protection is discrimination nonetheless.

“I think a lot of the time it's not malicious. The term benevolent sexism really does apply here. I think people don't even realise, and that’s the depth of the unconscious bias, they don't realise that what they're doing is damaging.”

She said there is a misperception of what pregnant women are capable of in the workplace.

“People think that they probably doing the right thing for you but actually they don't realise just how damaging the decisions that they make on your behalf actually can be,” Irish said.

“It's happened a number of times to myself and with colleagues where you actually do miss out on opportunities that are so crucial for career progression like being put onto papers and onto grants because people think they shouldn't bother you or that having a child has taken precedence over your science.”

The mother of a four-year-old said she chose to speak out about the issue because it can have a costly effect on the career progression of women in STEM.

“I know that a lot of women have had much worse missed opportunities that are way more costly for them in terms of their career progression. I feel lucky in one sense that it wasn't a make or break kind of opportunity that I missed out on.”

For Irish, who has accumulated numerous awards including a NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, the International Neuropsychological Society’s Laird Cermak Award for Outstanding Research in Memory, and a L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship, the experience has compelled her to speak at schools to inspire students and show them that pregnancy need not be an impediment.

“I want to go into the schools and show young girls and young boys here's a pregnant woman but she's also a scientist doing complex things and learning about the brain,” she said.

On the eve of International Women's Day, yesterday Irish spoke at an event at Auburn Girls High School, where she was inspired by the women in STEM of the future.

"The students were absolutely amazing, so engaged, and working on extremely interesting STEM projects. It was really inspiring to see the next generation of budding inventors and engineers."

 

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