Amy Emmerich is President, North America, at Refinery29; Dr. Leana Wen is President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The vast majority of business leaders may not need to so squarely center women in their thoughts, their strategies, or their practices. Yet, in the current moment of turmoil for women’s health, many are, because they know the future of their businesses and our economy depend upon it.
This week is Women’s Health Week, and more than 1,700 entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners have signed on to a letter from Business Forward, affirming their belief that access to health care is essential to women’s professional and personal success. Reproductive health care is an essential part of that health care. We cannot separate the ability to decide whether and when to have children from the ability to seek professional opportunities and plan our careers.
We know this because we have lived it. We have built careers while trying not to have children, while deciding to have children, and then while parenting and taking care of our families. At each stage we, like most women, faced challenges; from barriers to getting birth control to the pressure to return to work after giving birth to the difficulty of balancing work and family life. In one survey, 86 percent of women executives say the ability to plan if and when to have children has been important for them to pursue their professional and career goals, and 90 percent of women executives say birth control has been important for their ability to plan the size of their families.
And we know the importance of sexual and reproductive health care to educational attainment and professional fulfillment because history has shown us. According to a University of Michigan study, one-third of the wage gains women have seen since 1960 are the direct result of access to birth control. College enrollment was 20 percent higher among women who could access the birth control pill legally by age 18 in 1970. Other studies have found that women in college who have early access to birth control — before they turn 21 — are more likely to stay in college. For 30 years now, women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men, in large part because we have been able to plan our reproductive future as we plan out our educational and employment futures.
Yet even as the field of reproductive health has advanced, women’s progress toward equality has stalled. Where the U.S. once led, we are now 20th out of 22 countries for women’s participation in the labor force. Women are eight in 10 of the lowest wage workers, and only one in 10 of C-suite executives. Women earn only 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. For women of color, the gap is even wider. Black women earn 67 cents, and Latinas earn 58 cents.
The reason for continued inequality in the workforce is simple: Bad policies lead to bad outcomes. Other advanced economies invest three times as much as the U.S. in policies that support women, from reproductive health care to paid family leave. The U.S. remains the only advanced economy that does not mandate paid maternity leave. And leaders in Washington, D.C. and states across the country are pushing policies that would further restrict access to reproductive health care. The Trump-Pence administration is working to dismantle Title X, the nation’s only program focused on affordable reproductive health care, including birth control, cancer screenings, and STI testing and treatment. They have issued rules to cut funding for evidence-based, comprehensive sex education, and to make it easier for companies and institutions to deny their employees coverage for birth control.
And just this week, politicians in Alabama passed the most extreme ban on access to safe, legal abortion we’ve seen in nearly 50 years — sentencing doctors who provide abortion care to 99 years in prison and endangering women by banning all abortions, without exceptions for rape or incest. They follow the lead of states like Georgia and Ohio, which have passed laws banning abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they’re pregnant. These laws take aim at overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision before which thousands of women in the U.S. died every year because they could not access safe, legal abortion.
If, instead of pursuing policies that restrict access to reproductive health care, our leaders advanced policies that help women to participate in the workforce at the rate men do, the U.S. economy would grow by nearly $1 trillion each year.
We cannot move forward as a country when half of us are held back. We cannot build companies with the best ideas and leadership when half of us are excluded. We cannot expect women to thrive and lead when our policies actively undermine their ability to live healthy lives.
As working women, as moms, as leaders, we’re standing with businesses and all those who support access to reproductive health care and women’s health care — this week and every week.