There’s been quite a bit of buzz around the New York Times‘ coverage of Nike’s issues with a workplace environment described by many as hostile to women. While the WSJ and the NY Post have been covering the story since early April, when the Times writes about something, it tends to create much bigger waves than stories whose angle is strictly business.
As well, Nike as the biggest shoe company in the world (in apparel it’s second only to Dior) has a very high profile so the two combined make for lots of buzz. As such, we’re going to cover the story again, but mix in some opinion.
We first covered the story when the Wall Street Journal reported on a company meeting at headquarters that took place after Nike president Trevor Edwards was let go, allegedly in connection with issues of “inclusivity, respect and empowerment.”
The NY Post subsequently reported a total of nine employees had been let go with more to come. (On the “more to come,” there are rumors swirling about a certain prominent designer, but we will say no more. If you know, you know.)
In fresh reporting, the Times article noted an FKA Twigs VaporMax campaign for fall 2017 was shelved because of the sexist slant of the content, though interestingly there was a Twigs campaign released in January 2017 that was widely praised and viewed as a sign that Nike was waking up out of a product and marketing stupor that enabled Adidas to steam roll into the U.S. market unopposed throughout 2016. There was also talk about employees attending strip clubs, but that, too, had already been covered previously by the WSJ.
The Times did report on an internal Nike memo citing that about half of Nike’s employees are women, with just 38 percent holding director or higher roles. Among vice presidents, only 25 percent are women.
Companies in general don’t broadcast stats about how many women they employ and what roles they hold so it’s difficult to say how Nike stacks up with the competition. Nike has a male CEO, but that’s pretty typical with just five percent of Fortune 500 companies claiming women sitting in the top spot.
Working Mother put together a list of the “100 Best Companies” and it does breakout the percentage of women working at the company as well as the percentage who are managers and executives. On the list for 2017, there are 15 companies with a lower percentage of managers and executives than Nike and the average among the 100 companies (no, Nike’s not one of them) is 40 percent.
Nike (as its already admitted) has some work to do, and has begun with an announcement that it’s promoted two women, Amy Montagne and Jayme Martin, to fill leadership roles held by men who were part of the recent exodus.
Part of the issue is that Nike is rooted in sport, an industry dominated by men both in terms of participants and viewers. If you think about it, professional sports are literally anchored on fanning out over men based on their ability to perform extraordinary physical feats. The culture celebrates macho behavior and by design is meant to feel hostile to women. For an extreme manifestation, three women in Iran recently disguised themselves as men in order to attend a soccer match because women there while not flat out banned are routinely refused entry to games.
Not surprisingly, multiple women working at sport-dedicated channel ESPN in 2017 told the Boston Globe the environment was so hostile to women some felt they had to hide their pregnancies and take shorter-than-usual leaves in order to keep their jobs.
Going back to Working Mother‘s list, there isn’t one single athletic footwear/apparel or sport-oriented company that ranks in the top 100. Without excusing Nike or casting too many aspersions sans evidence (though we’ve heard “whispers” about another prominent athletic apparel brand), it’s a good bet that any company whose focus is celebrating and catering to the fans of the most macho of males will probably have streaks of female hostility built into the fabric of their workplace.
It’s good that Nike wants to change, but it’s not going to be easy because it’s had a lot of success for a long time doing things in a way that’s sort of crappy for women. The company has to continue to celebrate male sport culture and at the same time, create a new mindset to not just build product but also create effective marketing campaigns to reach the female cusotmer.
We wrote about the problem with sneaker companies as manifested by the famed Bella Hadid Complex sneaker shopping episode, a play in three acts revealing how Nike and most athletic brands struggle to connect with women. From casual observation, Nike in comparison with its peers is neither the best nor the worst when it comes to speaking to women, rather it sits solidly in the middle.
If people are expecting quick fixes at Nike, they will be disappointed because they don’t exist. Making changing will take time, along with a willingness to experiment, take chances, fail along the way and keep trying (like a successful athlete only an empathetic one!). Still, promoting more women to positions of power and rooting out the rogue dogs who managed to stake out territories based on accomplishments long since left in the taillights is a great start.