In recent years, we have seen CEOs stand up time and again for their employees and their communities in the face of harmful legislation. From the anti-transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina to the religious freedom bill in Georgia to the shooting in Parkland, Florida, they have shown a willingness to lead and protect the well-being of their communities when government has not. But despite this new era of CEO activism, major corporations have largely been silent in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, three states that have recently passed extreme anti-abortion bills.
This is frustrating and discouraging for those of us who work on reproductive rights — but not entirely surprising. Consider the fact that just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And there is a common misconception that abortion is a more controversial issue than the ones mentioned above — although it’s important to note that is simply not true. A WSJ/NBC poll found that 71% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, and many other studies mirror the finding that 7 in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal.
But the tide is turning. Yesterday, Netflix issued a statement saying it would “rethink our entire investment in Georgia” should its ban ever come into effect. Earlier this week, seven CEOs took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in support of abortion rights. All of these CEOs are women and run women-focused companies. They are leaders and their values are shared by a growing group of corporate executives. Behind the scenes, we’re seeing interest from companies in this issue like never before.
The fact is, when companies decide to speak out on social issues, there is almost always a business rationale for doing so. As companies evaluate whether or not to support women’s reproductive freedom, which many of them are likely doing right now, there are some big things they need to consider.
First among them: You can’t have women’s empowerment without women’s reproductive freedom.
Most companies today are invested in women’s empowerment and equality in the workplace. Those same companies must acknowledge that a woman cannot be fully empowered at work if she cannot readily access the reproductive health care she needs, including abortion. This relationship is well documented. The Center For American Progress found that women living in states with better reproductive health care have higher earnings and face less occupational segregation. A study from Small Business Majority found that 79% of women small business owners agree that access to reproductive health care is important to women’s financial well-being, and more than 6 in 10 women entrepreneurs of color say their ability to decide if and when to have children has impacted their bottom line. And a recent report from the Harris Poll and NARAL found that 2 in 3 employed adults believe women’s reproductive freedom is important to women’s success in the workplace.
In short, if a woman cannot choose if, how, and when to have a family, she will miss out on opportunities, suffer economic consequences, and lose control over her future. Any company interested in supporting working-class families and women’s advancement must understand that you cannot expand economic opportunity if you don’t protect women’s right to choose.
Another thing to consider: Restricted access will have consequences for employee productivity and well-being.
If you operate in a state where abortion access is under threat, expect to experience the consequences. If a woman can no longer access abortion care, she will need to take time off work to travel to a state where she can have one — if she can afford to do so. Many women, particularly women of color, will lack the resources or job flexibility to obtain a safe out-of-state abortion, which in turn will threaten their health, economic security, and ability to fully contribute at work. Considering that 1 in 4 women in America has an abortion during her lifetime, these bans will hinder companies’ ability to build a thriving, healthy, productive, and engaged workforce.
CEOs also need to understand that recruitment will become a challenge in these states. It is going to be much harder to hire top talent and build a diverse workforce pipeline in places that are seeking to restrict, ban, and criminalize abortion. As Catherine Rampell wrote in her recent Washington Post column, this isn’t much of a job pitch: “Please manage an auto plant in friendly Alabama, where if your 12-year-old daughter is raped, she will be forced to give birth to her rapist’s child!”
The data backs this up. According to Benevity, the workplace-giving platform used by hundreds of Fortune 1000 companies, the top two organizations employees donated to in 2018 were Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, both staunch defenders of a woman’s right to access abortion. This should give companies a clear sense of where employees’ values are. The Harris Poll/NARAL study found that 67% of millennial women say a benefits package offering full reproductive care would be a deciding factor between two job offers and that 61% of employed adults believe access to reproductive health care should be a consideration when companies relocate or open new offices.
It’s clear that there’s a growing demand for CEOs to show leadership on this. In this 2018 Harvard Business Review article, professors Aaron Chatterji and Michael Toffel wrote: “We believe that the more CEOs speak up on social and political issues, the more they will be expected to do so. And increasingly, CEO activism has strategic implications: In the Twitter age, silence is more conspicuous — and more consequential.”
This shift has happened right before our eyes, and there is no question that employees now expect bold, purpose-driven leadership from their CEOs. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 71% of employees believe it’s critically important for “my CEO” to respond to challenging times.
As the country grapples with extreme bans on abortion that seek to limit women’s autonomy and empowerment, this is a critical moment for CEO leadership. Corporations can truly make a difference in this fight, and we need their support to help protect the well-being and economic security of women in this country. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s smart business. The CEOs who took a stand this week should only be the beginning — who else is ready to lead?