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The women of Nike just gave the world a lesson in the power of rank-and-file employees

Serena Williams of the United States reacts as a call goes against her
AP Photo/Kathy Willen
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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Nike knows how to give the appearance that it cares passionately about women and equality. Its latest ad featuring tennis champion Serena Williams epitomizes its penchant for rousing rhetoric. In a 30-second spot, we watch a through-the-years montage of Williams on the court and hear her in a voiceover: “I’ve never been the ‘right’ kind of woman. Oversized and overconfident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my tennis whites. Too motivated to be a mother.” Then comes the takeaway: “But I’ve proven, time and time again, there is no wrong way to be a woman.”

Nike, the company, however, apparently hasn’t internalized the same take-no-prisoners feminism of its ads—at least not until now. On March 16, two high-level executives resigned from the Beaverton, Oregon-based firm. Nike didn’t offer detailed explanations for the departures, but a memo to employees from CEO Mark Parker referenced complaints of inappropriate behavior and pledged improvements in the company culture.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the developments were precipitated by an employee-led survey circulated among women at the company. It reportedly asked respondents about inappropriate behavior by men at the company and gender inequities more generally.

Sources told the paper that Parker eventually learned of the survey, which led to a recently completed six-month formal review of company culture. Then, last week, employees learned that Nike brand president Trevor Edwards, widely considered Parker’s likely successor, would step down in August, while one of his top lieutenants, vice president Jayme Martin, was terminated immediately. According to the Journal, the two men “protected male subordinates who engaged in behavior that was demeaning to female colleagues.”

More than another story about gender and racial inequality at a major corporation, the Nike news is added evidence that grassroots efforts are a force that now threaten the comfort of even veteran company leaders. Corporate leaders everywhere might want to pay attention.

This is hardly the first time that a group of disgruntled employees have organized for change, but standard corporate operating procedure of the past likely would have led to either the departure of one of the troublemakers or the semblance of an appeasing response. As feminist and scholar Catharine MacKinnon recently said in an interview with the New York Times, times have changed, and men in power, “generally white men, wealthy men,” she says, can’t ignore incidences where power has been abused.

“Now it’s going to cost them—their customers, their advertisers—in a way that’s going to bring them down,” she told the Times. “Before, it was easy to get rid of the women. Now, they have to get rid of the men, or they’re going to go down themselves.”

More than one change has made the old playbook obsolete. We can clearly point to the revival of the #MeToo movement and the creation of #TimesUp, focusing, respectively, on the twin injustices of abuse against women and inequality in the workplace. But we also must consider the influence of two tools of digital communication: social media and anonymous, crowdsourced documents.

If sites like Facebook and Twitter have created the public channels for new conversations among the masses, the anonymous doc has become a precise instrument of choice for those attempting to reshape corporate org charts. It is the perfect medium for this purpose. The anonymity means the catalysts of in-house efforts cannot be singled out for retribution, which allows employees to feel safer when speaking honestly. The documents also are circulated outside the control of corporate gatekeepers, promising a more democratic process.

Last fall, more than 100 victims of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein shared a Google doc to collect their stories of abuse and harassment. More recently, television writers and production assistants in Hollywood created a series of anonymous Google spreadsheets listing pay rates for people of different races and genders in the industry. Google docs, it seems, pick up where company review site Glassdoor leaves off.

Erica Joy Baker, a former Google engineer and activist for diversity in tech, says that a 2015 anonymous doc she created at Google was contributed to by 5% of employees and that people “asked for and got equitable pay based on data in the sheet.”

At Nike, it seems the anonymous survey has already led to high-profile departures and forced a company-wide reckoning. (Quartz has contacted Nike for comment and will update this post if we receive a response.)

The timing is ironic. Nike has just announced a new push to design and sell to women, a market segment that has been underserved by the sneaker gods, and whose dollars it hopes to harvest in an aggressive bid for new business. As Quartz’s Marc Bain has reported, it’s even opening what it calls “a fantasy sneaker destination for women,” named Nike Unlaced, where women will be able to make purchases from curated selections of Nike’s performance products and popular collaborations.

Also ironic: Nike’s women’s business was one of the business lines overseen by the now-departed Martin.

As Nike reconciles the image it presents to the public with the impression left on employees, we can probably expect to hear more from the women of Nike, even if we don’t learn their names.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.

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