Overturning Roe vs. Wade Is Going to Disrupt the Business World. Here’s What’s on the Horizon.

Athena recently hosted a Salon on the business impact of Roe vs. Wade, led by Alison Beyea — a leader in the civil rights arena with a 25-year track record forging partnerships and building programs to address inequities at the state and federal levels. She spent the past 8 years leading the Maine affiliate of the ACLU, navigating unprecedented civil rights and liberties challenges during a period of explosive organizational growth.

I know that across our large number of members, from all over the country (and world) and many different walks of life, we have varying beliefs on this topic, politically and religiously. Our goal during this event was to uphold the diversity of our incredible community, discussing this issue factually from the perspective of business– through the lens of history, the law, and the very real business impact and societal impact we’re all on the precipice of experiencing. It was hard to maintain that focus, and at times some of us did get emotional and it got personal. It’s a topic that is personal; not many topics can be much more personal than this one.

Regardless of where you stand on Roe vs. Wade, it is inarguably a business issue. Anything that affects people also affects businesses. We’re living in a world where it’s all intertwined. Policy changes can, and will, be felt for generations to come.

Business leaders and board directors — again, regardless of where you stand — need to recognize the challenges ahead and what’s at play. We’ve been confronting a number of societal issues over the last couple of years, from healthcare and polarizing views on social responsibility related to vaccinations and workforce safety, to mental health and home lives that can’t be separated from work when we were thrust into “work from home” during a sometimes terrifying pandemic, to inequity in human rights and parity in opportunity for people of all races. Here, too, is another societal issue we cannot ignore at a business level. Regardless of where any one person stands on Roe v. Wade, overturning it means women will face a new workplace challenge.

Some of that challenge starts with even normalizing the ability to talk about it. In the Athena Salon, Alison acknowledged this reality. “These are topics we’re told to never speak about. We’re taught never to say the word abortion. These are not conversations people have in business; they are not conversations people even really have around their family table. It’s not just abortion — it’s healthcare. Menopause. Miscarriages. Many things that relate to women’s health… whether people are uncomfortable or not, this decision will have a profound impact on a quarter of the women of this country, while they go to work.”

We need to get comfortable talking about it, not hiding from it, or only seeing the shame in what we face. I recall my own quiet resolve in dealing with a miscarriage between my son and daughter — one that required medical assistance — and the story of my mom having an abortion because the decision (not hers) was that another baby could not be afforded. And, being in my fifties, I only now see women starting to talk (with hesitation and embarrassment) about the difficulties of managing life while on the verge of, or in the throes of, menopause.

The real impact

Women make up half the labor force, and they are an enormous part of the GDP. Any law that affects women in the workforce — as Roe vs. Wade undoubtedly will — will have a broad-stroke economic impact.

One in four women will have an abortion in their lifetime. This is not a fringe group. This is not the minority. This is not a small number.

It won’t just be women who are impacted. Men will also be affected — they will become parents who will need childcare, flexible work schedules, help with education, and so on.

We are only scratching the surface of understanding the very complex, long-term impact of this decision.

What to expect from a business standpoint

There will be a wave of litigation in both the state and federal courts about what this means. First, there will be a flood of litigation at the state level, just regarding the right itself. States are already moving to protect (or not protect) a woman’s right to healthcare.

Next: the risks, liabilities, and compliance. It’s not as simple as moving or flying a woman to a “safe state” to receive healthcare. This is where it’s going to get complicated for companies. What happens when you pay for employees to cross state lines? Who is liable? What about medical licenses? What about criminalization, when people like your employees are criminalized for seeking an abortion, or for the doctors (or companies) that supported them and performed the procedure?

What about the right to privacy — apps, company data, you name it. Think of the issues related to HIPPA — what does it protect and not protect in this new era?

The costs to businesses — on both sides of the issue — will be significant and long-standing.

What to expect on the consumer and employee side

In the Salon, Alison said “companies can’t just sit out these conversations… My take is that companies must figure out where you stand and then try to live that purpose — you are going to get creamed no matter which way you go.”

Even if a company doesn’t take a stand on women’s rights specifically, what they will need to do is understand that their workforce will face a new set of pressures. If one in four women had an abortion up until now, a lot more women will be having babies in the future. That means one of two things:

  1. less opportunity for women, and therefore losing of ground for women trying to make their way equally throughout the corporate ladder, or
  2. a greater need for businesses to provide work environments that support mothers and families.

And, it must not go unnoticed that the people most impacted are and will continue to be low-income women and women of color. Women already struggling to survive will find it harder, for themselves and their families. And, the men who support these women will also be challenged. How will businesses help these individuals ensure the meager advances they’ve made in workforce equality do not slip backward? How will businesses help them make greater advances, with yet a major new obstacle working against them?

As a business leader, a CEO, or a board prepared to consider…

  • What are your clear healthcare policies and value-stances on women and access to abortion?
  • What is your company doing to support women’s postpartum recovery?
  • How is your company contributing to childcare?
  • What’s your view on flexible schedules?
  • Do you support job sharing?
  • Do you support remote work?
  • How are you ensuring fair advancement for all workers — regardless of them taking parental leave and/or being visible in the office?
  • How do you plan to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce?

As one member in our Salon noted (I share her quote anonymously to protect her): “It’s a fool’s errand to stay non-political on decisions like this. This should force companies and boards and management teams to be less opaque about their values. This is about values — and what the fundamental belief system is of the organization.”

What this is very much about is how much we value elevating women (in particular underrepresented women) in parity to men in the workforce. Without businesses choosing either supportive policies to support women’s rights, or great supporting policies to support family structures, or both the result of the overturn of Roe. vs. Wade will be a setback for women in the workforce.

Right or Wrong…

I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a public policy expert like Alison. However, I do know that since contraception and abortion have been made legal, in parallel, women have made great strides. They’ve been able to participate in our democracy, in our workforce, in policy, in our boardrooms, in education, and in leadership in significant ways:

  • Women’s college graduation rates have increased by 5x
  • The number of women working in STEM fields quadrupled
  • The number of women in management tripled

I realize we can’t statistically link this as a direct link to policy — but it’s inarguably intertwined. Regardless of where you stand on this polarizing issue, women’s ability to advance in our society is going to be limited. And, there will be an enormous fallout on the business and litigation side. This is only the beginning.

“I’m the bearer of bad news. There is no one single risk assessment. Lawyers are going to spend their summer thinking of all the ways this will expose companies to liabilities. We don’t have the answers yet,” Alison noted.

If you’re a member of Athena, you can view the full Salon here. And, if you’re not a member, we hope you join us. Through community and conversation, we’re forging a new way of executive learning discussing societal issues and other topics that affect top leaders in business. Learn more about membership here.

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Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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Athena Alliance

Athena Alliance

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com