For women in the workplace, it’s forever been a common issue of being ignored and unrepresented in comparison to their male colleagues. However, it might be surprising to hear that a company as big as Nike is at the core of discriminating against women. Female employees at Nike have been subject to uncomfortable and toxic environments due to the behaviour from men for a long time, and by a long time, I’m really talking 54 years. It appears finally, women are being heard and action is being taken.
In 2017, Nike employed approximately 74,000 people worldwide and is worth a staggering 358.88 billion dollars in the US; it’s clear that Nike are at the top of their game, yet are failing hugely with their employees. Behind the scenes of this global image, the stories that have been shared about the Nike workplace environment are uncomfortable just to read as a woman, let alone experience. Behind closed doors at Nike, we have one supervisor bragging about condoms that he would always carry in his backpack making women, one boss who thought it was acceptable to reference an employee’s breasts via email to her, and another boss who had attempted to kiss a female employee with force. Even the staff themselves would go out together to reasonable locations such as restaurants, yet somehow end up inside strip clubs. It appeared that men within all roles of the hierarchy seemed to have added to the uneasy environment over the years.
However, it was the bosses who had the biggest impact against subordinate female staff, blunting career paths. It isn’t too surprising to find out that women were made to feel marginalised and inadequate for promotion opportunities. Huge divisions within the company such as Basketball are heavily male dominated, purposefully excluding women. Despite this endless list of sexist behaviour (that is only the tip of the iceberg), there was always little or no evidence of any behaviour being penalised from HR.
Enough is Enough
After waiting for too long for action, a group of women at Nike have been taking matters into their own hands for a real change. Inside Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon headquarters, a revolt began through a group of women.
Initially, they surveyed their female peers covertly, discovering how many had been the victim of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. On March 5th, a folder of completed questionnaires were placed on Nike’s chief executive’s desk. From this moment, the next few weeks led to at least 6 major male executives leaving the company or stating that they were planning to leave.
Whilst the positives of so many executives leaving is being covered widely, a report from The New York Times published interviews with more than 50 female current and former employees of Nike. Within these accounts, it displays raw and vulnerable narratives of how women have felt dissatisfied, disregarded and harassed throughout their careers.
One woman, stated that for her, Nike was a dead-end job, “I came to the realisation that I, as a female, would not grow in that company“, resulting in her leaving after 5 years due to growing tired of men consistently belittling her. Many accounts described the workplace as being “demeaning to women” and lacking a voice for women to be heard when they expressed their problems to HR. Some expressed the possibility that due to there being a weakness of Nike’s women’s products, it was reflected in the lack of female leadership and voice, instead favouring male ideas and accelerating their careers. In response, Nike conducted their own research showing that women occupy nearly half of the company’s entire work force, but that fails to highlight the really important details. Just 38% of those women have positions of director or higher, and only 29% as vice presidents. It’s evident that women are heavily outnumbered. Whilst Nike have also fought that their women’s products are vital, former employees have stated that this sector has never been given a budget big enough to produce marketing campaigns to the same standard as the men’s.
Nike’s ‘Anti-Women’ HR
Women at Nike were so often ignored and men almost never punished, it resulted in HR nearly always being avoided. Reporting an issue to HR felt as though you were not the victim but instead the problem for reporting your colleagues for their behaviour. Not only would they expect no action to be taken on their report, they feared retribution. When a boss was reported for mentioning a female employee’s breasts, he was not terminated or punished, instead only given a light verbal warning.
Women were never taken seriously with HR acting extremely casual to highly sensitive cases. One employee whose supervisor tried to kiss her in a bathroom reported it to HR and set up a meeting. However, the meeting was not carefully conducted taking in all details ready for appropriate punishment, HR arranged for the meeting to take place in the Mia Hamm cafe – a public space on Nike’s lively campus.
A spokesman for Nike believes that they have a set of human resources procedures installed but has admitted that those systems “have not worked consistently“. He has stated that Nike are “currently reviewing and improving our practices to re-establish trust where it has been lacking and to guard against this happening in the future“.
The Top Women Leave
As apart of the revolt, some of the few women who held high roles at Nike began to leave, disassociating themselves with such an uncomfortable and sexist company. Patty Ross was one of the first to leave in the spring of 2017, she held the role of vice president of workplace design and connectivity. She had been working at Nike since she was 16. Following her out was Kerri Hoyt-Pack, a strong woman who had helped to launch the Nike Women’s’ brand. Then came Nikki Neuburger, another high-ranking vice president who was straight out the door. When she left, a letter was sent to Nike’s chief executive laying out the reasons for her departure. It included the universal topics: harassment, and the exclusion of women from the inner circle of decision makers.
The Future is Female
For such an enormous company that prides itself on being contemporary and diverse, the workplace of Nike has a long way to go before they meet their values. In a time where the #MeToo movement is so loud and important, it is invaluable for the corporate world to listen and support women. With continued bravery from women to place pressure on employees and companies, the revolt at Nike illustrates how the workplace can move forward and address workplace imbalances and problems quickly and with great genuine action.
As a woman myself, it feels very little too late for Nike. Considering the scale of their brand and how much impact they have globally, it should be at the core of their values to respect and represent all of their employees. It feels as though Nike are cheating their consumers by remaining so backwards and silent. Despite this, I personally look forward to more women being represented in higher positions and hope that this could be a big turning point for the brand and the women they employee.
In a final statement from Mark Parker, Nike’s chief executive, he said that the vast majority of Nike’s employees work hard to inspire and serve athletes throughout the world. “It has pained me to hear that there are pockets of our company where behaviours inconsistent with our values have prevented some employees from feeling respected and doing their best work“.
Words by Sophie Butler
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