"Today’s Scotus (Supreme Court of the United States) ruling puts women’s health in jeopardy, denies them their human rights, and threatens to dismantle the progress we’ve made toward gender equality in the workplace since Roe," said Yelp Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman on Twitter. "Business leaders must speak out now and call on Congress to codify Roe into law."

The Supreme Court’s decision of June 24, 2022 to overturn the landmark 1973 "Roe v. Wade" ruling enshrining U.S. women’s right to an abortion, is expected to result in patchwork legal rights across the United States, with abortion legal in progressive states like California and New York and barred in more conservative states like Texas.

Extension of reproductive care benefits

However few other CEOs of large US companies joined Stoppelman in condemning the decision. More common were statements from companies announcing or reiterating intention to reimburse employees if they need to travel for an abortion.

We are expanding [the benefits of the ELC’s medical plan] to include the coverage of travel and lodging necessary to access reproductive healthcare options within the United States that may not be easily accessible or locally available to employees and their dependents enrolled in ELC’s medical plan,” said The Estée Lauder Companies in a statement.

Similarly, luxury group LVMH said: “LVMH and our Maisons remain committed to providing equitable access to high-quality and affordable health care resources for all employees and their families, regardless of where they live in the United States. This includes expenses associated with travel to a different state for health care services.

Yelp and Airbnb were among the first companies to announce such benefits last September following a Texas law banning abortion after six weeks, or before many women know they are pregnant. Others, including Citigroup, Tesla and Amazon, had also announced the benefit in following months. More companies came forward after a draft version of last week’s abortion ruling was published in a press leak in May; this group included Starbucks, Levi Strauss and JPMorgan Chase. On Friday, Disney added its name to the list, assuring employees of access to reproductive care benefits "no matter where they live," according to a memo reported by CNBC. In the personal care industry Johnson & Johnson, and Unilever have made similar moves.

Cautionary tale

However, most large companies in the U.S. have avoided publicly discussing the topic, a dynamic that Wharton business school professor Maurice Schweitzer considers unsurprising.

"I think we’ll see more companies statements. But companies are facing a challenge. On the one hand, they want to be active, be involved, make a statement, lead on this issue, because particularly for some companies, their employees value this," Schweitzer said. "But it’s a complicated issue, because the legal landscape will change," opening companies up to possible litigation, he added.

Schweitzer pointed to Disney’s recent difficulties in Florida as a cautionary tale. The entertainment giant found itself between a rock and a hard place as Florida’s legislature advanced what critics have called the "Don’t Say Gay" law, which bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools. After initially staying quiet on the proposal, Disney finally spoke out on the measure, enraging far right Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who ultimately signed a second law specifically punishing Disney over the row by eliminating the company’s special status surrounding its Orlando theme park.

Disney "ended up frustrating employees by not speaking out early enough, but also incurring costs from a political fights." Schweitzer noted that more companies have spoken out in recent years, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook on gay rights and Dick’s Sporting Goods on gun control, which on Friday announced that it will provide up to $4,000 for employees, their spouses or their dependents who have to travel for an abortion. But the procedure is "more fraught" than many issues, Schweitzer said. "It’s easier for companies to try to be silent than to wade into it," he said.

Actually, major companies usually stay apart from social and political conflicts, especially in a polarized time. They tend to be afraid of offending their customers and associating their brands with sensitive subjects. However, this changed recently as pressures do not only come from advocacy groups but have extended to younger consumers and employees expecting the brands the buy, or the companies they work for, to have clear positions on what they see as key public issues. A series of indie brands have well understood that commitment could be a way to stand out from the crowd and met success by placing “corporate activism” as the keystone of their business model.

Keeping quiet is no longer an option, but speaking out can be risky: more than ever companies need to be clear about their own values and how their corporate mission is expressed!