Employee activism hits Nike as its staff demands more support for women

Mary Cain, one of the female athletes to call out Nike.
Mary Cain, one of the female athletes to call out Nike.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Nike is the latest company to hear from a voice of dissent rising at corporations: their own employees.

Yesterday, hundreds of Nike staff marched across its Beaverton, Oregon, campus calling for Nike to better support and empower female athletes and employees. According to Willamette Week, which first reported the news, the protest was prompted by the reopening of a building named for track coach Alberto Salazar, who ran Nike’s Oregon Project, an elite training group. Nike shut down the Oregon Project after Salazar received a four-year ban for doping violations but in November, Mary Cain, a former Oregon Project athlete, published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming she suffered physical and mental abuse under Salazar’s leadership. Other athletes have since come forward.

Alberto Salazar stands smiling with his hands on his hips.
Alberto Salazar in front of the building bearing his name on Nike’s campus.
Image: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Pictures from the event show women holding signs with slogans such as “Do the right thing,” “Empower women,” and “We believe Mary.” Cain herself thanked those who took part, tweeting, “My love and thanks to all those that came together at the Nike Walk the Talk event this morning. Company cultures can only change when people stand together. Let’s be that voice of change and show we demand better support for women. Thank you for standing with me.”

The Nike staffers join those at a number of other companies speaking up about their employer’s policies or leadership. Last November, Google employees walked out of work in protest of the company’s handling of sexual assault and harassment cases. More recently, staff at Wayfair planned a walkout because of their company’s sales of furniture to migrant detention centers, while Amazon employees demonstrated against the company’s policies related to climate change.

At Nike, claims the company fails to support women—despite its marketing that promotes female athletes—have become a recurring issue. Last year, women at the company circulated a survey painting a picture of a “boys club” culture that left women underpaid and under-promoted. The company investigated, leading to a shakeup in top management and efforts by Nike to reform its company culture. But then in May, Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix criticized Nike’s maternity policies for athletes in a New York Times op-ed, prompting Nike to change its policies. Cain’s allegations about the Oregon Project followed six months later.

A Nike employee who asked not to be named says workers distributed a flier calling for a “campus walk” to celebrate what women bring to sport and to provoke a conversation about how Nike can better empower female athletes and employees. It wasn’t exactly a riot: Willamette Week described it as “quiet and orderly.”  Senior leadership joined in, the person at Nike said.

But the title of the flier alone—”Walk the Talk, Do the Right Thing”—and the fact that employees felt the need for a demonstration suggest a continuing feeling of dissatisfaction among many women on Nike’s campus.

“We respect and welcome employees’ feedback on matters that are important to them,” a Nike spokesperson said in a statement.