Despite the good press Nike has enjoyed recently from its partnership with social activists Colin Kaepernick, the athletic apparel company is still struggling in its relations with women. Four former female employees are now suing Nike for gender discrimination, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last month.
The lawsuit claims that Nike pays and promotes women at lower rates than their male counterparts, and enables a hostile workplace for women. This is the latest accusation about problematic gender dynamics within the corporate culture. Earlier this year, eleven top executives were pushed out following reports of harassment and bullying behavior.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Portland, also claims that Nike didn’t respond to male employees who engaged in sexual and verbal harassment. The plaintiffs say their employer’s backward policies and practices result from a lack of female leadership at the executive level.
“A small group of high-level executives who are majority male” have permitted the hostile work environment, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs — Kelly Cahill, Sarah Johnston, Samantha Phillips and Tracee Cheng — allege they received less pay than male colleagues for doing equal work, received fewer promotion opportunities, and experienced an unresponsive human resources department when they repeatedly reported their complaints. The group says Nike is in violation of federal and state equal pay laws, as well as the Oregon Equality Act.
In response, Nike released a statement that the company actively opposes discrimination and is committed to the values of diversity and inclusion.
“We are committed to competitive pay and benefits for our employees,” a Nike spokeswoman said. “The vast majority of Nike employees live by our values of dignity and respect for others.”
But the women said their careers suffered as a result of their gender.
“Women’s career trajectories are blunted because they are marginalized and passed over for promotions. Nike judges women more harshly than men, which means lower salaries, smaller bonuses, and fewer stock options,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit also claimed that Nike fosters a culture sexual harassment. Johnston worked at Nike for nearly ten years, and reported being sexually harassed with nude pictures and propositions. Later, she was mistreated by her male harasser when she rebuffed his advances, according to the lawsuit.
After Johnston reported the incident, one of her managers allegedly responded that “she should be less sensitive to these messages, and that people should expect more such messages.” Her superiors didn’t give her the option of switching positions to avoid her harasser.
The lawsuit cited other examples of a hostility toward women in the workplace, including a senior employee discussing a colleague’s breasts in an email and male employees repeatedly calling women vulgar names.
This past spring, in the wake of multiple reports of workplace harassment, the Nike experienced an exodus of top executives, including Nike brand president Trevor Edwards, who was widely expected to be the company’s next CEO.
Since those events, Nike has publicly acknowledged the need to improve its diversity hiring. In April, its HR chief sent a memo recognizing the company “failed” to promote and hire women and minorities for senior-level roles.
CEO Mark Parker apologized to Nike employees for the hostile culture in May, according to CNBC.
“We, and I, missed something. While many of us feel like we’re treated with respect at Nike, that wasn’t the case in all teams,” Parker said. “And if all of our teammates don’t see the same opportunities, we just can’t accept that.