‘Pregnancy sexism’: one woman’s battle with bar staff

Like many couples soon to become parents, Sheila Kanani and her husband were enjoying a final hurrah at a friend’s birthday party at a bar in Shoreditch in London. As a five-foot-nothing woman with a very large bump, Sheila felt a little self-conscious dancing. ‘When I say dancing, I was more swaying because I’m eight months pregnant’, she tells me. ‘I was having a good time, you know – sitting down when I needed to.’ And, with her six-foot-six husband on hand and surrounded by a bunch of friends, she didn’t feel unsafe. More to the point, she wasn’t drinking that night. ‘I’ve had bits of alcohol here and there across pregnancy because everything’s alright in moderation’, she explains. But with only a month to go before her baby was due, cocktails were not her first priority.

Towards the end of the night, as her husband went to get his coat, a male bouncer asked to have a word. Sheila wondered what he could want. ‘They can’t be talking about me because I’m drinking, because I wasn’t, and I wasn’t causing havoc or anything.’ But, as Sheila’s husband was coming back, a female bouncer began telling him that she was concerned for Sheila’s safety. The bouncer refused to look at or talk to Sheila herself, and spoke only to her husband, ‘as if he was my boss’. A self-confessed feisty character, Sheila interrupted her. ‘I am stood right in front of you, I am pregnant, not ill, and I don’t understand why you are talking to my husband, and not to me.’

The bouncers offered to escort her out through the back door, to ‘avoid getting knocked by other customers’. They told Sheila that ‘we are not forcing you to leave but suggesting that you leave for your own safety’. The manager joined in, saying, ‘don’t feel you have to leave but we are worried about you’. Even more bizarrely, two male customers offered their two-penneth, telling her that ‘women like you shouldn’t be in nightclubs’, before shuffling off when they saw her husband.

The scene blew over pretty quickly but, afterwards, Sheila was left trying to make sense of what had happened. ‘It was hard to tell if [the bouncers and manager] were being genuine in their concern, if it was a club policy, or if they were worried I was going to sue them were I to fall over or something. You’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they were concerned, but, equally, I’m concerned for my own safety and I wouldn’t put myself in danger.’

If anyone is equipped to calculate risk in a sensible fashion and put pregnancy in perspective, it’s probably Sheila. She has a degree in physics and astrophysics, and a PhD in planetary science, analysing data beamed in from Saturn’s rings. She now works for the Royal Astronomical Society, and, on her blog, she describes herself as ‘a Londoner by birth, but a space cadet at heart’.

When I speak to her, she’s in reflective mood. ‘I work in quite a male environment but I’ve never experienced any sexism. With the pregnancy, work has been really supportive. I’ve heard some horror stories from other pregnant women about their employment difficulties, so being kicked out of a club isn’t the worst thing that could have happened, but it was a very strange feeling. Initially, it was kind of funny, but then, afterwards, I thought that actually this is modern-day sexism and they were questioning my parenting skills before I’ve even got the child and making me feel like I’ve made the wrong choice by being in a bar.’ Asked what she thinks was going on, she puts it down to ‘pregnancy sexism – if that’s even a thing? – other people making decisions for me based on the fact that I was heavily pregnant’.

What Sheila seems to have been subject to is our extremely unhelpful contemporary parenting culture, where parental responsibility is extended backwards into pregnancy and, as a consequence, pregnant women’s behaviour is subject to public scrutiny and judgement. It is this culture that gave the bouncers, as well-intentioned as they may have been, license to disapprove of, and express concern for, Sheila. This comes as quite a shock to ambitious women like Sheila, who are used to competing on equal terms with their male counterparts and taking responsibility for their own actions. Pregnancy suddenly transforms women from autonomous actors into mere vessels for fragile fetuses. Even a seriously inspiring space cadet like Sheila can be brought down to earth with a bump.

Dr Jan Macvarish is a founding associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies, published by Palgrave Macmillan. She is currently working on a book for the Palgrave Pivot series called Neuroparenting and the Destruction of Parental Love.

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