Microsoft dodges abortion question at annual meeting, laments worker shortage the next day

Microsoft recently held its annual shareholder meeting. These meetings are held for managers to report matters of concern to shareholders, to whom they are accountable. Various questions are put before the owners of the company, for example: election of board members, appointment of financial auditors, and various "resolutions," which are items similar to initiatives and referendums in politics. In addition, companies take questions from their owners and, presumably, answer them.

The reality is that companies, especially since COVID, when they switched to virtual meetings, have been able to avoid inconvenient questions by summarizing shareholder questions in ways that make it easy to pivot away from their content, and towards topics consistent with their CEO's public relations goals. Back in the days when people would gather in an auditorium and step up to a physical microphone, the actual owners of these companies could phrase their own questions in their own ways for all to hear.

For example, I asked Microsoft a question about its public support for abortion:

"Shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, the company made a public announcement "to protect employees rights" and to reimburse for abortion costs. Does the company really need to insert itself into a polarizing social issue on which our country is divided? The opening video [of the annual meeting] just mentioned "protecting fundamental rights", so please do not avoid this question as irrelevant to the business of the meeting."

The question clearly was registered by the computer system, and I have a screen capture to show that. However, the moderator did not quote it, but instead referred to several questions about how to balance profit and social goals, with no reference whatsoever to the specifics of, for example, abortion.

Managers responded by speaking about issues related to customer privacy in using Microsoft products:

"We probably spend more of our energy on standing up for the needs and rights of our customers than any other thing we do. Protecting their cyber security, not just individuals at home and companies, but look at Ukraine, an entire country, protecting people's privacy rights around the world. Think about what it means for us to get involved in protecting the child safety online."

Of course, no reasonable person would object to Microsoft addressing what are clearly core business concerns of the company such as privacy protection and the cyber security of its customers. The problem is the company swerving into divisive social issues which are not directly relevant its core business priorities. And unless Microsoft decides to include a pregnancy removal app in its next Office suite, then abortion is not among those relevant priorities.

Then again, maybe it is relevant, just not in the way the company says it is. The very next day the company posted a clip on LinkedIn from a discussion which lamented the current worker shortage. "If we're going to have fewer people on which to rely, we're going to need more technology and figure out how to harness it more effectively," it said. They then go on to discuss "skilling…an aging demographic" and give an example of a grandfather learning to program apps.

So Microsoft weighed in on the pro-Roe side of the abortion debate, and furthermore announced a policy to subsidize abortion fees and even travel expenses, then refused to answer a question about these things at the annual meeting, and then the very next day went on talk about a shortage of working age population. They did so with no evident awareness of the contradiction between those things.

Since Roe, 66 million people have been denied the right to see the light of day. That has not just moral implications, but evident economic ones as well: labor shortage. Every one of those aborted people would be under 50 years of age, placing them within the working age range. Abortion has left a gigantic hole in every aspect of our lives. It's good that Microsoft recognizes that we have a demographic crisis. It's not so good that they'll pay for the expenses of people who abort their children. This is the opposite of a solution.

But there is a certain grim consistency to Microsoft's culture. There have been widespread press reports about the founder's sexual involvement with underlings, and of his associations with the notorious sexual predator, Jeffrey Epstein. Further, there are widespread reports of a culture of sexual harassment, backed up by hundreds of legal complaints from female employees. In fact, the problem is so serious that shareholders placed a proposal on the ballot calling for the company to produce a report detailing the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of its efforts at reform. The company opposed the measure, but remarkably shareholders went against management and voted for the proposal nevertheless. That almost never happens.

Derek Kreifels of the State Financial Officers Foundation (a group of state-level Treasurers and other financial officers who are frequently involved with the management of investments in companies) reports that "the company has faced extensive allegations of discrimination against pregnant workers — including an instance where a manager claimed the company didn’t want to 'waste' a promotion on a worker in case she got pregnant."

There is a perverse kind of logical consistency to all of this: a corporate culture which looks the other way when (typically) men with power use that power to have sex with women (unless you think it was all down to Bill Gates' personal charisma), dovetails with a culture which promotes the eradication of any troublesome pregnancies which arise from those liaisons.

Formerly pregnant women can get back to the cubicle (or maybe get an "unwasted" promotion) and back to work for the company. Pregnancy is expensive, not just in terms of medical costs, but in terms of taking highly economically productive women away from the coding grindstone.

And as for worker shortages, well, that’s a long-term problem. The timeline from pregnancy to worker is at least 18 years and nine months. So far, large companies who are looking at 2040 risks seem to limit their concerns to weather predictions emerging from highly complex computer models, rather than the highly predictable demographic fact that each abortion which occurs now creates a 100% probability that the victim will not be a future worker later.  Or a future customer. Or a future anything else.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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