advertisement
advertisement

How activist shareholders are making the business case for abortion access

Rhia Ventures’s Shelley Alpern explains how the nonprofit is encouraging companies to look at the ways abortion restrictions will impact their employees—and their bottom line.

How activist shareholders are making the business case for abortion access
[Photo: ajijchan/Getty Images; atakan/Getty Images]

Tucked into Citigroup’s 2022 proxy statement, released ahead of its annual shareholder meeting in April, was a list of measures the company implemented over the past year to attract and retain employees: pay equity initiatives, expanded parental leave, and mental wellness and sabbatical programs to prevent burnout. There was something else, too: Citi had also begun providing travel benefits to employees who need to go out of state to find an abortion provider. 

advertisement
advertisement

This is part of a series of articles on the business case for abortion access. See the full package here.


The company didn’t issue a press release about this new benefit, despite the chorus of people calling for companies to be more vocal about the rollback of abortion access across the country (a chorus that has grown louder with the recent leak of a draft decision suggesting the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade). But announcing the benefit in a corporate filing was exactly the point, says Shelley Alpern, who oversees shareholder advocacy efforts at San Francisco’s Rhia Ventures, a nonprofit that supports reproductive and maternal health through investments and corporate engagement. 

“Abortion access has been made into a moral issue. And I think Citi was rejecting that frame,” Alpern says. “The way Citi expressed [the new travel benefit] in the proxy statement was basically: ‘This is healthcare. This is in the context of benefits that we are expanding to protect our employees. This is a business determination.'” Citigroup declined to comment for this story, but in the company’s annual meeting on April 26, CEO Jane Fraser addressed the topic by saying that the new benefit “isn’t intended to be a statement about a very sensitive issue,” but is part of the company’s long-standing policy to cover reproductive healthcare. 

advertisement
advertisement

That’s the argument that Alpern and others have been making to companies through shareholder advocacy in recent years. In coordination with foundations and ESG-minded institutional investors, Rhia has helped introduce more than two dozen shareholder resolutions since 2021 that seek to force companies to reckon with how abortion restrictions impact their employees and bottom line. (Rhia hasn’t put forth any at Citigroup.) Collectively, these proposals represent a growing effort to turn corporate America into the backstop for abortion access in this country. 

Directed at companies like AT&T, Charter Communications, Pfizer, and Home Depot, some of these proposals ask corporations to square why their political donations are at odds with their stated values, particularly around abortion and voting rights. The AT&T resolution, presented with the As You Sow foundation ahead of the company’s May 19 annual meeting, points out that the telecom giant donated more than $300,000 to top sponsors of the Texas abortion ban, even as CEO John Stankey was positioning AT&T—and himself—as an advocate for women’s empowerment. Such inconsistency poses a significant risk, the proposal argues, “to corporate reputation, brand, and market share” by opening the company up to “charges of hypocrisy or indifference.” (AT&T, for its part, advises shareholders to vote against the proposal, citing its top score on the CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability.)

Rhia’s other resolutions, focused on “risk mitigation,” compel companies to account for how diminishing access to abortion makes it difficult to attract and retain employees. Aimed at corporations like Walmart, Kroger, Lowe’s, and TJX Companies (parent of TJ Maxx), which have many lower-paid employees in red states, Rhia and its partners’ proposals push for expanded insurance and health benefits related to contraception and abortion, including travel benefits. (In recent weeks, without shareholder action, companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Levi Strauss have joined Citi in offering this benefit.)  

advertisement

In conversations with all of these companies, Alpern makes the business case for abortion access. Nearly a quarter of women in the U.S. have had an abortion by the time they’re 45, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute. And 86% of women report that being able to decide if and when to have children has been important to their careers. Lack of access to abortion diminishes women’s ability to advance their careers—and corporations’ access to talent. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that state-level abortion restrictions already keep more than 500,000 women ages 15 to 44 out of the workforce each year. And restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and with low incomes, who face greater barriers to contraceptive access. 

“There is a business argument to be made for supporting gender equity in all different ways, including reproductive rights,” says Jonas Kron, the chief advocacy officer at Trillium Asset Management, which worked with Rhia on resolutions at TJX Companies and the Home Depot. “In today’s labor market, where there really is a war for talent, not only do you not have a lot of workers to choose from, but if you lose the ones you have, it’s going to cost you a lot to replace them.”  

Getting an activist shareholder proposal passed is difficult. None of Rhia’s 2021 resolutions received a majority vote, though a political spending one at Pfizer garnered 47% of the vote; several others received more than 30%. With the 2022 proxy season underway, it remains to be seen how this year’s slate will fair. Behind the scenes, though, Alpern and others are engaging corporate leaders, who are often forced to the table by these proposals. Already this year, Rhia has seen one company agree to add travel benefits for employees who need to leave their state for an abortion. (Because of a nondisclosure agreement, Alpern can’t name the company. But the shareholder proposal at Kroger was withdrawn—a signal that at least some of Rhia’s demands were met.) And Alpern says she’s had “productive” conversations with other corporate leaders about their political donations and employee benefits.  

advertisement

With the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade over the summer, shareholder advocacy around abortion access will take on even more urgency. These proposals have been aided by the Securities and Exchange Commissions’s newly friendly stance under President Joe Biden toward resolutions having to do with social policy issues that were rejected under previous administrations. Heidi Welsh, executive director of the Sustainable Investments Institute, a nonprofit that follows environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues for institutional investors, says that fewer than 200 ESG-focused shareholder proposals went to vote in 2021. That number rose to roughly 300 this year. Welsh also points out that shareholder activism—a way to exert pressure on “powerful players in the economy”—tends to flourish at times of political dysfunction. “The number of shareholder proposals is inversely proportional to effective government,” she says. 

But opposition may be growing. BlackRock, an early champion of ESG, is starting to push back at what it sees as growing overreach by some shareholder proposals. And Carolyn Frantz, co-head of corporate governance and ESG practice for the law firm Orrick, says that “backlash proposals” from conservatives on abortion access may also be on the horizon, similar to one that was filed to Nike in 2020, dinging it for its involvement in “hot-button social issues,” including abortion.

Research from the nonpartisan think tank the Conference Board shows that shareholder resolutions from the conservative National Center for Public Policy, which was behind that 2020 Nike resolution, grew from 11 in 2018 to 43 in 2022. Though support for the center’s proposals has been fairly low (averaging 10%), their very existence is a sign that annual shareholder meetings may become a new political fighting ground, with reproductive rights playing a larger role. 

advertisement

Fast Company spoke to Rhia Ventures’s Shelley Alpern about how shareholder advocacy could help protect the right to abortion. 

Companies were vocal after George Floyd’s murder and on other social issues, such as the anti-trans “bathroom bills” from several years ago. But it seems that many haven’t found their voice on this issue. As somebody who’s been working in this space for a while, what have you seen?

I would absolutely agree that they have not found their corporate voice on this issue. We’ve spoken to executives at companies who seem personally comfortable with the idea that their benefits can be stronger, but who are still either reluctant or facing pressure from above not to take a public stand on the issue.

advertisement

The fact is, this is a really controversial topic. But what many in corporate leadership don’t recognize is that for decades a solid majority of Americans have supported the Roe v. Wade framework. Any pressure or blowback that [companies] get is from a relative minority that would simply force anyone under any circumstances to bear a child against her will. And I think they truly underestimate the level of support that they would get from their own employees, who ought to be their most important constituent.

Are you disappointed that corporations haven’t played a more prominent role ahead of the Supreme Court’s anticipated decision this summer?

I’m disappointed, but not surprised. There’s a strong taboo and stigma around this issue. Particularly in the immediate, two-year run-up to this [decision], companies have been focused on other issues. They had their hands very full with COVID-19, and they were facing pressures to be vocal on a number of other social issues. So, it’s not surprising. And many Americans, not just the people I talk with in corporations, are utterly shocked that the court did this. They should not have been: The handwriting was on the wall. 

advertisement

What do you tell companies that they should be providing employees right now?

In the area of insurance, they need to make sure that they’re providing all manner of contraception options, and not just the floor that is required by the Affordable Care Act. We are pressing them to make sure that they ensure elective [abortions], as well as abortions that are deemed medically necessary. And then there’s, of course, the travel policies. For women who need to go long distances, those costs should be fully covered. We’re noticing that a number of companies are also paying for the cost of the partner to travel with them, and that’s definitely humane. Also adequate time off, for travel and for physical recovery.

And communication: We’re really asking companies to be very clear in how they communicate these and any changes in policy to employees. Because employees could be uncomfortable or frightened about bringing up the topic with their supervisor or their HR administrator.

advertisement

How much of your shareholder advocacy work is a PR effort, especially when you are highlighting the way that a company’s political donations are not living up to its stated values? 

I bristle at the suggestion that this is PR. It’s pointing out that there are real-life consequences that are hurtful to the company when they’re underwriting politicians and political committees who are working on, in some cases, an array of issues that directly conflict with organizational values. Companies will say, “Employees are our most important asset.” Then they need to take care of that asset. 

Companies must already know the risks to their employees when abortion is no longer accessible in half the country, right? 

advertisement

I think there’s a vast under-appreciation for how common a procedure [abortion] is. According to the Guttmacher Institute [nearly one in] four women will have an abortion during her childbearing years. Most of the women who are seeking abortions already have children. And women who are turned away from having abortions are three times more likely to leave the workforce, and four times more likely to end up in poverty.

So when you multiply that by the number of terminations that are sought every year in the U.S., you’re talking about a sizable reduction in the workforce and a weakening of the talent pool. This is coming at a time when so many women have had to leave the workforce already because of pandemic pressures. We already have a volatile labor market. And [there’s also] just the human cost: I don’t think companies are thinking about that at all. They might start to wake up when they realize how common a procedure this is.

They’ll wake up, but it’s going to be too late.

advertisement

It’s never too late. This is the next phase of our conversations with companies: So abortion is ruled unconstitutional. We still have the political possibility that one day Congress would pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, and that would implement a statutory right to have an abortion across all 50 states. At the state level: Yes, half or more of the states will move to ban abortion. But companies [can] speak up and let the party committees know that they want a new slate of moderate candidates, and want to repeal these extreme abortion bans. That’s the next phase. That’s where we go.

We need to convince [companies] that this doesn’t have to remain the law of the land. The corporate voice can be very important. And most Americans are going to be with them if they express this as their obligation to provide employees with the best possible healthcare. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

advertisement
advertisement
advertisement