Is Nike’s gender problem a few bad apples, or an old-boys-club culture?

Corporate cultures don’t change that easily.
Corporate cultures don’t change that easily.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar
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After a group of former employees filed a lawsuit against Nike alleging gender discrimination, one thing is becoming clear: It’s going to take more than dismissing a handful of executives to reform the company’s male-dominated culture.

Earlier this year, 11 executives left Nike amid employee complaints of sexual harassment or the fostering of hostile workplace environments. The departures included Trevor Edwards, who was Nike’s brand president and presumptive heir to the role of CEO.

The dismissals followed a formal review of the company culture, undertaken after CEO Mark Parker learned of an anonymous survey conducted in secret by female employees. After Edwards resigned, Nike forced out several of his closest allies, some of whom ascended the ranks with the British-born Edwards in a group aptly nicknamed the “European mafia.”

Nike made sure that its efforts to respond to the allegations were well known—probably for transparency’s sake, but also as a smart PR move. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Oregon, suggests there is more work needed for the company to repair itself.

“I think Nike wants to say that, ‘Just a couple people were responsible for the problem and we’ve gotten rid of them,” employment lawyer Laura Salerno Owens, who is representing the female plaintiffs, told The Oregonian. ”But we know that’s certainly not the case.”

Nike’s former head of human resources, David Ayre, has been largely blamed for the department’s repeated failure to act on complaints, but it appears there were many others who, either willingly or not, cooperated with the male-dominated status quo. The lawsuit alleges that “instead of addressing these complaints, HR reinforced and exacerbated the hostile work environment.”

Lawyers for the ex-employees said that if the judge approves the suit as a class action, it could cover more than 500 women—not a good look for a company that, just a few months ago, announced it would start prioritizing its female customers.

Nike declined to address the suit, saying it does not comment on pending litigation. But spokesman Greg Rossiter said the company has “a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion” and that the “vast majority of Nike employees live by our values of dignity and respect for others.”

Nonetheless, the company—like many others—has been a locus of gender disparity in pay and career progression. In an internal memo obtained by the New York Times, Nike’s own research found that women occupy nearly half the company’s workforce but just 28% of positions at the director level or higher. In the UK, Nike was obliged to disclose its gender pay gap, which revealed that on average, the bonus pay difference between UK male and female employees was 37% in the wholesale division and 15% in retail.

A few bad apples might start the problem, but it takes more than that to spoil an entire company. The numbers will change when the culture does too.