Better Life Lab

What Really Helps Women Succeed at Work? Access to Birth Control.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Andrew Neel/Unsplash.

Most women already know this—the freedom to plan if and when to have children is critical not only to our family lives but to our work. Easy access to birth control is good for our bodies, minds, relationships, and personal satisfaction, but it’s also good for our careers. This is especially true if we’re trying to advance in our chosen fields, start our own businesses, or grow existing ones.

A new poll out from Small Business Majority surveyed more than 500 female entrepreneurs and found that more than half of the women (56 percent) say that access to birth control and the ability to decide if and when to have children allowed them to advance in their careers and start their businesses. Women-led small businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy, projected to create about one-third of all new jobs between 2010 and 2018.

Yet the Trump administration has been putting a vital tool for these women on the chopping block: access to birth control. He began by cutting the contraceptive coverage mandate, the Affordable Care Act requirement for insurance companies to pay for birth control at no cost to women. Unintended pregnancies, teen pregnancies, and abortions have all dropped since the policy change, a direction likely to reverse once the mandate is rolled back.

And who will that hurt? (Besides 62 million women who gained access to free birth control through the ACA?) The U.S. economy. People who want some of the 9 million jobs created by women-led businesses.

Oh, and the women leading these businesses.

LaJuanna Russell is someone who knows firsthand how critical access to birth control is for women who want to start their own businesses. Her daughter was born in 2002 after a difficult pregnancy, and she relied on the hormones in birth control to control her menstrual cycle, which was so excruciating that for two to three days each cycle she’d be “lying on the floor,” unable to get up.

“People don’t think about birth control,” she said. They tend to think “that it’s just about whether or not you want to have babies. It’s not the only function,” Russell said. When her daughter was 3, Russell started her own management consulting and professional services firm. Birth control regulated her periods and her decision not to have other children. It allowed her to be fully present in the founding and growth of her business, by her own choice.

When we spoke, Russell was in California attending the Inc 5000 conference highlighting the fastest-growing companies in America. For the third year in a row, her company, Business Management Associates, was included. What Russell started on her own has now grown to more than 100 employees. She provides health care that includes birth control for her employees. Even without the ACA requirement to do so, she’ll make sure to choose a plan where birth control is included.

“As an entrepreneur, we have a saying, ‘You cannot criticize or complain until you have walked in that path.’ And there is no male in the world that has walked in that path,” she said, referring to the men in business eager to undermine women’s access to contraception. “So how can you criticize or complain?”

Adina Nack, a medical sociologist at California Lutheran University, points to the proven economic and social benefits when women control if and when to get pregnant. “Access to birth control increases their educational opportunities and then also the economic opportunities. It’s hard to tease those two apart,” said Nack. She points to research that found that the number of women who complete four years of college is six times more than it was before birth control became legal and that access to birth control has allowed more women to pursue graduate degrees.

The contraceptives-to-success correlation can be explained by three main factors. First, access to birth control allows women to complete more school, yielding more business opportunities. Second, the physical, emotional, and mental stress of an unwanted pregnancy (not to mention the cost) can be detrimental to a woman at any stage of her career and would clearly detract from the energy required to start and run a successful business. Finally, Nack points out that many work cultures value a work-above-all-else mentality from the top leadership. Women who want to succeed in that realm need family planning resources to keep work their main priority in significant years of their careers. As a result, it’s no surprise that women in business think a lot about health care policy.

“Women small-business owners are more concerned about health care policy than men small-business owners,” said Nack. The Small Business Majority survey also found 71 percent of female small-business owners say insurers should be required to include birth control coverage in their health plans.

Access to birth control is one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century. At the same time, female entrepreneurship has soared. New data showing that female business leaders believe that the two are linked should come as no surprise.

Around the turn of the millennium, the number of women-led businesses was 5.4 million, less than half of the 11.3 million there are today. Women-led businesses may only continue to boom if that vital 20th-century public health achievement continues to be accessible to 21st-century women.