Some political and cultural events set off a cascade of emails from brands – sneaker, makeup and food companies telling their customers that they stand with them in a stressful time, or reminding them to vote. But after a draft opinion was obtained by Politico revealed the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, the overwhelming reaction from corporate leaders was silence.
“This is an issue that many companies have shied away from,” said Miriam Warren, Yelp’s chief diversity officer.
Ms. Warren, whose company has been among the most vocal in support of abortion rights, is hoping the silence will break. She sees voicing an opinion, one way or another, as a necessity for recruiting and retaining talent.
“The companies of the day are not wading into political issues, or not talking out things that are perceived as private or personal, over,” she said.
Anti-abortion campaigners, however, said the silence from companies made business sense.
“It is usually a mistake for corporate leaders to wade into political issues, especially divisive political issues where they can alienate half their customer base,” said Anne Cori, chairman of the anti-abortion group Eagle Forum.
And for now, that seems logical to hold. There were differing opinions expressing dismay with the draft opinion – largely from women-focused brands and the women who run them, many of whom spoke out on the topic.
OKCupid, the dating service, on Twitter on Tuesday that overturning Roe v. Wade would be “unacceptable,” adding: “Tag a brand you would like to see take action.” Kate Ryder, chief executive of Maven, a women’s and family health group, wrote that her team had been making plans to help companies protect abortion access for their workers if Roe was overturned. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, posted on her personal Facebook page that it was “a scary day for women.”
Beyond that, most Fortune 500 companies, substantive statements were few and far between, whether in support of or against the court’s draft opinion.
In recent years, business leaders have dipped into their political discourse, making public statements supporting the Black Lives Matter or voting rights or marriage equality. Some companies that haven’t dreamed of engaging in politics a decade ago felt that the Trump era demanded at least a news release.
Even more recently, corporate leaders have been reminded of how fraught engagement can be. Disney, for example, faced internal backlash when its leadership declined to take a strong stance against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics often refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. But when the chief executive took a public stance, the company was crucified on social media, and the state revoked its special tax benefits.
Now, with the expected landmark abortion law expected, corporate leaders are confronting the hottest hot-button issues. In a Pew Research poll in 2021, 59 percent of Americans said they believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. People on all sides of the issue feel strongly about it, with more than a quarter of Americans saying they will vote only for candidates who share their views on abortion, according to Gallup.
That all adds up to many reasons a company would like to avoid making any statement on abortion – and all the more because customers and workers could come to see it as necessary. A company’s position on the end of Roe could have repercussions for how it hires an increasingly competitive labor market, and how customers view its brand.
“Abortion is a health care issue, health care is an employer issue, so abortion is an issue for employers,” said Carolyn Witte, chief executive of Tia, a women’s health care company. On Tuesday, Tia announced that it would provide medication abortions through its telemedicine platform in the states where it operated and where doing so was legal.
For some major companies that have been known to weigh in on political and social issues, this week has been unusually quiet. Walmart, Disney, Meta, PwC, Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, ThirdLove, Patagonia, Kroger and Business Roundtable were among the companies and organizations that declined to comment or take a position, or did not respond to requests for comment about whether they plan to make it. Public statements about their stance on abortion. Hobby Lobby, which in 2014 brought a suit to the Supreme Court challenging employer-provided health care to include contraception, made no public statement and did not respond to a request for comment.
Other companies did wade in. United Talent Agency said it would reimburse travel expenses for employees affected by abortion bans. Airbnb said it would ensure its employees “have the resources they need to make choices about their reproductive rights.” Levi Strauss & Company, which said its benefits plan will reimburse employees who travel out of state for health care services such as abortions, said abortion was a business issue.
“Efforts to further restrict or criminalize access would have far-reaching consequences for the American work force,” the company said in an email to The New York Times. “It would jeopardize workplace gains women have made over the past 50 years.”
Any statement making the stakes – corporate, or personal as a company leader – is clearly high.
In September, John Gibson, chief executive of Tripwire Interactive, a gaming company based in Georgia, posted on Twitter that he was “proud” of the Supreme Court for “affirming the Texas law ban abortion for babies with a heartbeat.” His comments were angered colleagues, and within a few days he was replaced.
“The comments given by John Gibson are his own opinion, and do not reflect those of Tripwire Interactive as a company,” read a statement from Tripwire Interactive Leadership. “Our leadership team at Tripwire is deeply sorry and unified in our commitment to take a swift action and to foster a more positive environment.”
Tripwire did not reply to a request for comment. In a tweet after his departure from the company, Mr. Gibson said, “To the many fans, friends and peers across the belief spectrum that has reached out to offer care and support, thank you.”
Consumer-facing companies also have to think about what customers will say: Two-thirds of consumers say they are making purchasing decisions based on a brand’s social position, according to research from Edelman in 2018.
“If I’m Walmart, and I’m located in the South, I think I have bigger concerns about political repercussions and repercussions from consumers – especially if I act alone,” said Amanda Shanor, an assistant professor at the Wharton School. from the University of Pennsylvania, where she focuses on constitutional law. Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is set among 13 states to ban abortion immediately or very quickly if Roe v. Wade is reversed.
Alienating customers is a hazard. But companies also have to think about the labor market.
Women make up roughly half the workforce, and those who are unable to get an abortion are less likely to be employed full time after six months of denial of care, according to a 2018 paper. The percentage of women participating in the labor force has grown significantly since the Roe ruling in 1973; Between 1962 and 2000, it jumped from 37 to 61 percent.
And in areas of the country where abortion access is the most restricted, executives sometimes face recruiting challenges. Vivek Bhaskaran, chief executive of QuestionPro, a technology services company that moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Austin just before the pandemic, said Texas’ restrictive lawsuits were hampering its ability to recruit talent.
“I’ve done tons of interviews, and in almost all of these conversations we end up talking about the abortion law in a way, shape or form,” he said. “One lady said, ‘My personal values aren’t really tied to Texas – are you going to force me to move to Texas?'”
Solugen, a Houston-based chemicals company, decided to open a second office in Boston to accommodate recruits who are uncomfortable moving to Texas, said Gaurab Chakrabarti, the company’s chief executive and co-founder.
The handful of companies that took action after Texas banned abortions at the six-week mark last year could be a harbinger of what the wider corporate world might do in the coming weeks and months. Citigroup disclosed in filing a securities that it was providing travel benefits to employees seeking abortions outside their home state. Yelp, which has just over 200 employees in Texas, announced that it will cover workers who need to travel out of state for abortions. Shar Dubey, head of the Match Group, announced a fund for employees seeking abortions.
Amalgamated Bank was a corporate entity that had tried to avoid addressing abortion publicly – until this week. A vice president of the bank, Maura Keaney, followed along as the Supreme Court heard arguments over the Mississippi law directly challenging Roe in December and felt “hopeless,” she said. Still, at the time she didn’t say anything publicly.
“As the days and weeks went on, it became clear to me all the talking in the space, our clients and our employees, that just wasn’t a functional perspective for either taking personally or for the bank,” Ms. Keaney said.
She was working to ensure that the bank – founded in 1923 by a labor union of immigrant women workers – could pay travel costs for out-of-state abortions for its employees and create a fund to help grass-roots organizations.
An announcement was planned for later this month. Instead, the bank made it public on Tuesday.