Nike has acknowledged problems within its workplace and is making some changes. Photo: Reuters

INTERNATIONAL – Up until recently, sexual harassment claims at Nike followed a familiar trajectory in the #MeToo era. Women who worked at the company shared information about the abuse they faced at work. Shortly after, a group of executives left.

Now four former female Nike employees are suing the athletic apparel giant – not for sexual harassment, but for pay discrimination and limited opportunities for women to win promotions. The plaintiffs are seeking damages and an end to Nike’s alleged discriminatory policies. 

If the lawsuit clears the difficult hurdle of attaining class-action status, a lawyer for the plaintiffs says, she expects at least 500 more women to join.

“Just firing a few people is not going to change something that has been in the making for many years,” says Laura Salerno Owens, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “That’s not how this works.”

High-profile departures by men such as those at the NFL Network and CBS have been followed by those companies also being sued for sexual harassment. What makes the Nike suit different is that it aims to take down an alleged system of discrimination in which harassment is only one part of a larger problem. 

“If there is a culture of harassment within an organisation, that probably suggests broader problems around gender equity,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. In the Nike case, those broader problems include accusations of depressed starting salaries and failure to promote women to the highest-paying jobs.

Making changes

Nike has acknowledged problems within its workplace and is making some changes. It recently introduced an anonymous hotline for employees to raise office concerns, is offering companywide unconscious bias training, and is providing additional mandatory training for 10 000 managers. The company also recently hired its first chief diversity and inclusion officer.

The changes aren’t enough, say some former employees, because they do nothing to address a broader environment that demeaned and undervalued women. 

Kelly Cahill, a former senior producer, says a superior (who’s since been fired) used an anti-gay slur to refer to women on several occasions. Cahill, who now works for Adidas, also says she was paid about $20 000 (R294 000) less in 2017 than a man on her team who did similar work. 

Nike says its female employees make 99.9¢ for every $1 paid to men.

In July, Nike revamped its pay structure, raising the salaries of about 7 400 employees, or 10 percent of its global workforce, and tying bonuses primarily to the success of the overall company. 

In a statement, Nike said it “opposes discrimination of any type and has a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion” and that a “majority of Nike employees live by our values of dignity and respect for others”.