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Why CEOs Never Talked About Abortion—Until Now: The Broadsheet

June 11, 2019, 12:16 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! IBM’s Ginni Rometty talks tech skills, Target ups its parental leave benefits, and corporate executives dare to touch the third rail. Have a terrific Tuesday.


CEOs touch the third rail. Just three weeks ago, Bloomberg published a story that argued that big companies “can’t see the upside” of entering the abortion debate. “[T]he corporate silence on abortion...has been deafening,” the story says.

Fast forward to this week, and for some companies and their leaders, the calculus has changed. On Monday, nearly 200 U.S. executives signed an open letter in the arguing that restricting abortion access is “bad for business.” An earlier letter published in late May was signed by leaders whose firms cater to female clientele—from Cora’s Molly Hayward to Thinx’s Maria Molland. Monday’s letter featured executives of some similar companies and was also endorsed by the likes of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Yelp's Jeremy Stoppelman, and Slack’s Stewart Butterfield.

“Don’t ban equality. It's time for companies to stand up for reproductive healthcare,” says the letter, which doesn’t mention specific states but is clearly aimed at restrictive new laws in places like Alabama and Georgia. It adds that limiting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion, is a threat to the “the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers.”

“It impairs our ability to build diverse and inclusive workforce pipelines, recruit top talent across the states, and protect the well-being of all the people who keep our businesses thriving day in and out,” the letter says.

What prompted some executives to suddenly leap into the third-rail territory? Aaron Chatterji, professor at Duke University's business school, has studied CEO activism, and says it’s likely a matter of the abortion debate going national. The legislation in Alabama, for one, is intended to trigger legal challenges that could wind up at the Supreme Court and ultimately undo the abortion protections established by Roe v. Wade.

“It’s not just one state,” he told me. The link to the Supreme Court is what matters here; that’s what has employees—and subsequently, their leaders—talking about it.

The drastic nature of some of the measures—the ‘heartbeat’ restrictions and the criminalization of performing the procedure—that has outraged critics likely aren’t factors in this newfound corporate activism, Chatterji says. After all, executives don’t “want to get into detailed debates about where they draw the line,” he says.

But even as executives finally weigh in on the matter, they’ve done so carefully, presenting their stance in terms of gender diversity and inclusion—packaging that makes the topic easy for corporate leaders to handle.
“They want to use words they’ve already been using,” Chatterji says.

Tactics aside, Monday’s letter is an attempt to respond to employees’ concerns, which carry significant weight at firms that rely on human capital—especially in such a tight labor market. And it’s just another example, Chatterji says, of executives expanding the definition of what’s ‘good for business.’

Claire Zillman


Skills to pay the bills. Speaking at Fortune's CEO Initiative in Manhattan last night, IBM chief Ginni Rometty said she believes that "so much of the division in our country and other countries" comes down to skills—and specifically to who does and does not have the right skills to participate in the digital economy. She went on to talk about a program IBM started seven years ago to train disadvantaged youth for technology jobs. Since then the effort has served 125,000 students and roughly 500 other companies have joined in. Fortune

Hudson's Bay bid. Helena Foulkes's Hudson's Bay Company turnaround effort could be gearing up for a drastic turn: taking the company private. Chairman Richard Baker is leading investors in a $1.31 billion bid. Bloomberg

Right on Target. In the battle for talent amid low unemployment, Target is improving its parental leave benefits. Employees now get 20 days of subsidized child or elder care and increased reimbursement on adoption and surrogacy fees. Bloomberg

Vatican II (genders). The Vatican released a document called "Male and Female He Created Them" in which it says that gender as chosen and not dictated by biology is a "confused concept of freedom" that can "annihilate nature." The document is meant for Catholic educators, and was condemned by LGBT advocates. Washington Post

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The Bank of Japan named Mikari Kashima as its head of media relations—the first woman in the job. Marqeta hired Barbie Brewer as chief people officer.


 Divided front. Anne Evans, a former senior director of recruiting for game development platform Unity, is suing CEO John Riccitiello for sexual harassment and unlawful termination. She says the workplace was one fraught with sexist jokes and frequent propositions. Unity says the accusations are false and that Evans was fired as a result of "serious misconduct." Variety

The woman behind IVF. Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe gained renown as the doctors who developed IVF. But nurse Jean Purdy was their third collaborator—and Edwards unsuccessfully pushed for years to have her contribution equally recognized. New York Times

Tequill-ionaire. Karen Virginia Beckmann is now one of the richest women in Latin America. Part of the family behind Jose Cuervo, her father just transferred more than half his stake to her, leaving her with tequila shares worth about $1.9 billion. Bloomberg

Never too late. Want to feel inspired? Check out this feature on eight women who changed direction and achieved major personal and professional milestones after turning 50. From becoming a doctor 25 years after first being accepted to medical school to training as a bodybuilder at 71, it's all pretty amazing. Washington Post

Today's Broadsheet was produced by Emma HinchliffeShare it with a friend. Looking for previous Broadsheets? Click here.


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