Why agencies can’t stay silent on Roe v. Wade

Abortion rights demonstrator holding a protest sign featuring a bloody coat hanger and the words "NEVER AGAIN"
Abortion rights demonstrators during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Getty Images)

The impending Roe v. Wade court decision is going to make gender disparities in our industry exponentially worse.

Think the advertising industry has a gender inequity problem now? Just wait until Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Women account for nearly 56% of workforce exits since the start of the pandemic, despite making up just 48% of the U.S. workforce, according to a study by McKinsey and Oxford Economics. That number aligns pretty damn closely with findings from the latest She Runs It #Inclusive100 report, which found that women make up just 46.4% of workers in advertising, media and technology — a decrease of nearly 10% year over year.

Let me say that again: In the last year alone, we’ve lost 10% of the women in our industry.

Perhaps some of that due to the economic factors of COVID. But if it was an entirely unbiased numbers game, we’d see just as many male employees exiting the agency world. That’s not the reality, though.

The pandemic has put a blinding spotlight on the challenges facing those who identify as female in our industry. According to KKF, nearly half of mothers who quit their job during the pandemic did so in part because school or daycare was closed. At agencies, where females are already the minority, childcare has been one of the leading causes of attrition (burnout was an equally significant factor). 

Women are leaving agencies at greater numbers than ever before to care for their children — which I can only assume many of them had by choice. But that wasn’t necessarily an easy choice. 

Succeeding in advertising gets exponentially harder when you’re juggling work and family life. Many women delay having kids until they’re in a higher position, hoping that seniority affords them greater flexibility. Some are going freelance or leaving the industry because agencies can be inhospitable for working moms. Others are choosing not to have kids at all to focus on their professional ambitions instead.

All of these are viable and valid choices. But there’s a critical common thread: they are CHOICES. What happens when that choice is taken away, especially in an industry that’s already stacked against working moms? 

We're already unwelcoming to racial and economic minorities — the same groups disproportionately affected by a lack of access to reproductive healthcare. Where does that leave half of the population, without the right to choose about our own bodies, families and careers?

Overturning Roe v. Wade would be a punch in the gut to all of the progress we’ve been working so hard to create. Diversity, Equity, Belonging, and Inclusion all hinge on an inalienable right to choose our own paths. It encourages workplaces where everyone is welcomed, respected and heard. It offers the autonomy to speak-out against discrimination and call out aggressors, to fight for representation and parity in pay, on panels, in entry-level positions and in leadership. The autonomy to decide if — and when — we want to become parents.

Think about how many women may have succeeded in their careers because they had access to abortion. They had the autonomy to make a decision about their priorities, which directly impacted the trajectory of their careers. You take away their choice, you take away their future.

The impending Roe v. Wade court decision is going to make gender disparities in our industry exponentially worse. What can we do about it? 

  1. Hold space for employees to feel their feelings. Recognize their emotional reactions and tell them that it’s okay if they’re struggling. Let them log-off to process their experience. Creating safe spaces for supportive conversations.
  2. Stand up as a company for women’s rights by examining the positions and endorsements of your partners. If you have clients who are ethically misaligned, or their employee policies make it hard for women to thrive, your agency can CHOOSE not to work with them. If the ad networks you’re using support anti-abortion political candidates or pundits, spend your clients’ dollars elsewhere. 
  3. Urge your staff to contact their congressional representatives about supporting legislation that would supersede a court decision by codifying Roe V. Wade into law. Digital advocacy platform Rally Starter has set up a campaign to make it easier for individuals to put pressure on their Senators through emails, phone calls and tweets.
  4. Ensure your agency’s health benefits cover all aspects of women’s reproductive care — preventative visits, contraception, infertility and, yes, pregnancy termination. If they don’t, reach out to your benefits representative. Or go one step further, like Levi’s, Bumble and Citigroup, by covering the cost of travel and abortion care for employees if it becomes illegal where they live.
  5. Create policies that empower mothers and women who choose to become to keep advancing their careers. This includes offering childcare stipends, matching college fund contributions, creating flexible work accommodations and offering generous parental leave.

We may not be able to impact what’s about to happen to abortion access nationally. But we can impact what happens at our companies. It all comes back to the right to choose. Each and every one of us — especially in leadership positions — have the right to choose to take action.

Exercise that right. Our lives – and our industry – depend on it.

Amy Small is EVP, creative at Media Cause.

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