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The End of Roe v. Wade: What’s a Leader to Do?

It’s Time to Realize the Personal is Professional

I was recently deeply troubled when a colleague, an expert in DEI, shared with me that at one of the tech companies she advises not a single leader addressed the senseless murders in Buffalo. She suggested they say something, anything, to their employees – she even provided them with key talking points –  but she was told that focusing on it was too “upsetting”. The leaders worried it would be “a distraction” from the end of quarter sales numbers. And one C-suite executive said to her, “If we talk about this hot button issue, what else do we have to address? Where does it end?”


Those leaders continued their path of silence after the murder of 19 children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. They told her they didn’t feel it was appropriate to discuss such sensitive issues in the workplace. And yet, here’s the irony: At company All Hands meetings and at ERG events, those same leaders can’t stop talking about their commitment to fostering an inclusive culture. But when it mattered, when their employees needed compassion, empathy, and space to process, inclusion wasn’t really a priority. That says it all, doesn’t it?

I wish this was an isolated story. I have since spoken to numerous colleagues in tech, financial services, biotech, energy and heard the same thing. Leaders missing the moment, focusing on the “work at hand”, refusing to discuss “hot button” issues for fear it would be a business distraction.

But here’s the truth: Employees – the foundation of every business – ARE distracted and many are traumatized.

It’s been a long time since leaders could get away with convincing themselves that the personal is the personal and that what happens in the home, in the lives of employees, and in our country overall is not relevant to the job at hand. I had thought Covid forced even the most reluctant boss to acknowledge the personal is professional.

I guess I was wrong.


Hot Button Issues Aren’t Going Away. The Next One is Here

Your employees are now facing an important “hot button” issue. They are going to be distracted and business is likely to be disrupted – not just in the day and weeks that follow, but for years to come.

What am I talking about? Abortion. Or, more specifically, the overturning of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court whose ruling is due out sometime in June.

Hold up, I promise this isn’t about to become a polemic on the issue of “choice” – that’s for another time and place. This is about work and an employee base facing a fundamental disruption in their ability to be productive. And, this is about how modern leaders show up for their employees. This is about you and this is about your company.

How may it impact your company?

  • Scholars argue that abortion access has helped drive female workforce participation in the past 50 years from 50% in 1970 to close to 60% in 2019 (which by the way is much lower than the 80%+ that most other westernized countries experience). Additionally, research has shown that women who are denied abortion access are more likely to leave the workforce and more likely to end up in poverty – the impact is greatest for Black women. If this research is accurate, as unwanted pregnancies increase due to lack of access, women are more likely to leave the paid workforce, which means there will be a small pool for talent from which to pull from when you are trying to beat the competition and drive results to your bottom line.
  • Did you know women of color represent nearly 70% of abortions? If they are denied access and forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy, they are, as noted above, more likely to leave the paid workforce which means it will be even harder for you to find the intersectional diverse talent your business craves. And that doesn’t even address the fact that women of color face much greater health risks from being pregnant which means, if they stay, the cost pressure to your health insurance coverage will be even greater.

Recently, Fast Company published an article with the headline, “The Business Case for Abortion Access: Why Corporate Silence on Reproductive Rights Harms Workers – And Companies.”

They argued that since health care is tied to employment, reproductive rights is a workplace issue. They talked about the challenges to hiring and retaining talent when half of the labor force is likely to be directly impacted by the ruling. They addressed the PR challenges companies are now facing for their support of anti-choice politicians and political committees while also claiming to be focused on advancing women in the workplace. They mentioned the rising tide of activist shareholders who are holding companies accountable for their stance on reproductive freedom.

Despite all of this, Fast Company reported that companies have, for the most part, remained mum on this  issue. They noted,

“These days, corporations make public proclamations after just about every significant news event. After George Floyd was murdered, tech companies, including Microsoft and Apple, made pledges of $3.8 billion to diversify their hiring practices and better support Black workers. Airbnb, Google, and others rushed to announce matching donations to support relief efforts when Russia invaded Ukraine this February. And back in 2013, hundreds of companies, among them Starbucks and Facebook (now Meta), urged the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. 

So why is it that, even amid the mounting pace of state legislation and recent Supreme Court leak, companies have had so little to say about abortion?”

The one thing Fast Company failed to mention is that companies are made up of people and the deafening silence is about leadership.


It’s Time to Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

For the first time since 1974, women in this country are facing a world in which their rights to self-determination are being removed. This Supreme Court’s decision impacts every single one of your female employees. They may be relieved and feel justice is finally being served, or they may be horrified by the loss of body autonomy. Either way, this decision will be triggering. Why? Because every single woman of childbearing age and beyond in the workforce has come of age in a time when her right to decide when and how to have a child has been hers to decide. When that is no longer the law of the land and as more and more states pass laws that limit or curtail that right, every single woman of childbearing age is going to have to decide how she wants to navigate her new normal. How and what she decides will impact you.

As a leader, you may be asking yourself, “Why is this my problem? I’ve got deadlines to meet, investors to satisfy, inflation scares to manage, and supply chain challenges to navigate. In short, I’ve got a business to run. ” You may also be saying, as one leader recently said to me, “I do my best to keep my personal beliefs out of the workplace. It’s not personal, it’s business.”

Or, you may feel like many of the men who participated in our 21st Century Leadership Lab last fall. When we presented them with a case study on SB-8, the law that made abortion illegal in Texas, many of the leaders shared they felt “uncomfortable” discussing the issue and a number admitted they just didn’t know what to say or do.

The good news is many leaders have shown up in astonishing and unexpected ways to fight racial injustice, to support their employees through the pandemic, to advocate for each other as we collectively navigate an unruly political divide – so the empathy, agility, and commitment to fairness are certainly there. But when it comes to the issue of abortion, most leaders  – particularly male leaders – behave like deer in headlights, hoping the crisis will be averted, imagining we can all go back to the way things were.

Here’s the thing: We won’t. We can’t.

So with this decision, what can a modern leader do?

First and foremost, acknowledge that something fundamental has happened. Don’t ignore it. Don’t consider it a business distraction. Don’t shy away from it because it is “too upsetting.”

We are advising our clients to use HEARTI as a model for how to handle this and other “hot button issues.”

  1. Be HUMBLE “During times of crisis and change, corporate executives face the most important tests of their skills as thoughtful, influential leaders,” says culture change expert, Andi Simon.  “Humility and vulnerability are key.”  You may feel out of your depth and unsure on how to engage. It’s ok to say, “I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m ready to learn.” Or, “This is new territory and I am trying to figure out how to move forward in a way that supports each and every one of our employees. Let’s talk about what you need to help you during this time.” Being curious about others’ experiences and having the humility to know you don’t know what it is like for them is foundational to HEARTI leadership.
  2. Be EMPATHETIC: This issue – or any hot button issue for that matter – may not seem to impact you directly, but understanding that it does impact many of your employees is critical. It’s ok to say, “I am not sure how you are feeling, but I’m here for you if you’d like to talk.” One thing to keep in mind: It is important to acknowledge that people have differing views and feelings on so many of these issues. Imposing your point of view – or allowing others to impose their points of view to the exclusion of others  – is not constructive nor inclusive. A HEARTI leader understands that diversity of opinion and experience is key for creating the best products and services. Mastering the art of constructive dialogue is a core modern leadership competency. It starts with empathy.
  3. Be ACCOUNTABLE: Think of accountability as a concentric circle of impact and engagement. It starts with the self – how you show up for your team and the employees with whom you engage – and moves outward to systems – how your company shows up for its employees and, finally, how you and your company shows up to the world at large – society. When it comes to Roe v. Wade, at the very least you must be prepared to discuss and address this issue (Self). Leading companies are moving forward to support their employees by offering to pay relocation expenses as necessary for those who are no longer comfortable living in states that limit reproductive freedom. Others are offering to pay for travel expenses when an employee needs to terminate a pregnancy and they can’t do so in their home state. (Systems). Finally, leaders like Bill Gates are calling on other leaders to take a stand. BSR has provided a list of how businesses can step up and take meaningful action. You can read their recommendations here and decide if any are right for you and your company (Society).
  4. Be RESILIENT: The overturning of Roe v Wade is not the first “hot button” issue you have had to deal with and certainly won’t be the last. Developing the skill to speak up, have a point of view, and hold space for others with a different point of view is foundational to modern leadership. It takes practice and courage, a willingness to fail and learn from those mistakes. You may be afraid of being cancelled, but shying away is not an option. So learn to be resilient in the face of “hot button” issues, have the courage to take a risk and engage. You can model for your employees how it is done and talk to them about having growth-mindset so they, too, can build their resilience as leaders of people.
  5. Be TRANSPARENT: Understand that the personal is professional and it can be appropriate for you to share your own story. Being transparent about how this issue has affected you can be a great bridge between you and your employees. It may be a story about the time you and your partner chose not to terminate a pregnancy and what that meant for you. It may be a story like mine (see below) that can help others understand the impact of limiting reproductive freedom on the potential of women in the workforce.Beyond the personal, remember that these days the majority of employees expect their companies to take action on key social and cultural issues. You may decide that taking corporate action is not right for your company, but helping your employees understand why you as a leader have made that decision can go a long way to building trust. Being accountable and transparent about your decisions and actions is foundational to modern leadership. You can no longer hide behind the legacy “it’s just business” trope.
  6. Be INCLUSIVE: Yelp CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman wrote in a recent op-ed, “Remaining silent on the issue of reproductive rights flies in the face of any public pledges professing a desire to create more diverse and inclusive companies.” He’s right. You can’t be committed to diversity and inclusion and then ignore issues of racial justice, reproductive freedom, LGTBQ+ rights, and so on. These issues fundamentally impact your employees and how you show up for them is critical to fostering an inclusive culture. 

A great resource is your Employee Resource Groups. They have the pulse of employees in their respective communities. They know what is being said near the proverbial water cooler. Work with them to understand how this issue is impacting the members of their community. Ask them what they need and how you and the company can provide support. Sometimes all they need is to know you are listening. They are likely to have ideas and solutions just right for your company and employees. Reach out and ask for guidance and work with them on designing solutions that work for all.


It is Personal and It is Professional

I’ll end with my story, because I am a professional whose personal story literally defines everything I am today…

In 1978, I had an abortion. I was 16. The night I got pregnant I didn’t want to have sex. It wasn’t my choice. But, thankfully, four years earlier the Supreme Court made abortion legal across the country and that meant 16 year old Lisen did have a choice. Because of that choice I went on to college then got my MBA then got a job and worked my way up the corporate ladder. I pivoted and launched my own marketing consulting business, which morphed into helping companies attract and recruit more women into leadership. I wrote a book. I sat on boards of start-us and national non-profits. I donated my time to my local community and donated my money to causes I believed in. I voted. I paid taxes. Lots of taxes. Eventually, I became a social impact entrepreneur. Since 2019, I’ve dedicated my time to helping build a fast-growing business working with colleagues and clients I respect, doing work which is making an impact for companies and their employees – the talent foundational for company success.  Along the way, I married my college sweetheart, we had three babies, and now three incredible humans have been launched into the world so they can make choices that work for them and, I hope, make a difference in the world.

In short, I lived a life I would never have lived if I became a mother at 16.

According to the Guttmacher Instituate, one in four American women will have an abortion before the age of 45. That’s about 4 million women who may soon be forced to have an unwanted pregnancy. That’s a lot of talent whose lives will be forever changed and who may not be able to contribute to our society as deeply and widely as their potential would indicate.

It’s time to talk about this and be the leader your employees – and the world – need you to be.

Lisen Stromberg

Lisen Stromberg is the CEO and founder of PrismWork and a 2GO Advisory Group consultant. She is a workplace culture innovation and leadership expert who works with clients to help them build next-in-class 21st century cultures with the future-forward leaders their company needs to succeed. As an award-winning independent journalist, her work can be found in The New York Times, Fortune, Newsweek, and other top media outlets. Her book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, reveals how trailblazing women disrupted the traditional career paradigm to achieve their personal and professional goals and how forward-thinking companies create workplaces that enable women to thrive.

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  1. Terri Dufore

    Listen, thank you for sharing your insights and your story. You have voice to everything I have been thinking about today.

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