At least 11 Nike executives have left the company this year over complaints of an uncomfortable workplace that discriminates against women.
The first to go was Nike’s president Trevor Edwards. The announcement came in early March that the company’s number two is retiring in August after more than 25 years. Edwards was a favorite to succeed CEO Mark Parker.
The very next day it was announced that Jayme Martin, a vice president and general manager of global categories for Nike, was no longer with the company.
Surveys taken by a group of women at the company’s Beaverton, Ore. world headquarters reportedly landed on Parker’s desk and led the company to move swiftly. In a New York Times exposé transgressions included company emails that mentioned women’s body parts and a male supervisor cornering a woman in the bathroom.
In April five more senior leaders departed and more were reported last week. It’s left some former Nike employees shocked at the reckoning and hopeful—if wary—that the company that made Portland “Sneakertown” can change.
Nobody to complain to
Among the surprised is Ann Wallace. After 14 years working for the Nike IT department she left her role as a principal cloud security architect in January.
“That was a really tough decision. I didn’t want to leave Nike necessarily,” she says. “My whole time at Nike—I mean, the majority of it—I loved the company. I loved working there.”
She recalls the family dynamic she felt while working as a contractor at the Beaverton headquarters that made her determined to become a full-time employee. As an avid runner she related to Nike’s athletic mission.
“We’re part of the Nike culture…you would see different sports people walking around, ” she says. “My first week at Nike there was Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. You just felt part of Nike.”
But then about six years ago things changed within her department. What she describes as “a whole shift.”
“A new CTO (chief technology officer) came in and he brought a lot of his friends in,” Wallace says. “And a lot of women who were in upper management positions within the IT organization kind of went elsewhere, either other roles in Nike or outside of Nike.”
The departing women included Wallace’s boss, whom Wallace says had protected her staff from misogynistic behaviors within the IT organization.
“Certain individuals within that organization would constantly berate women, talk down to women, interrupt.”
And there was the trip to Las Vegas for a tech conference where she and another female colleague would be presenting. They were the only two women from her IT department that attended.
The conference organized a pub crawl and Nike rented out a restaurant on the way. Wallace and the other woman in attendance were told to chat with people when they came in. If they seemed like good job candidates, Wallace was to ask for their room number so they could send them gift bags with a Nike Fuel Band, the brand’s fitness tracker.
“I don’t feel like anyone thought through the fact that they were asking women at a tech conference, which is primarily males, who have been drinking in Vegas, for their room number,” Wallace says. She and her colleague nodded and agreed but did no follow through with the request.
“I didn’t feel comfortable asking a random guy for his room number,” Wallace says.
She also didn’t feel comfortable about the women who had been hired to entertain them.
“They weren’t stripping but they did not have much clothes on, and towards the end of the event a lot of our male colleagues were drinking and dancing with them. And my coworker and I just watched what was going on an eventually left,” she says. “It was just a really uncomfortable position to be in as far as a work sponsored event.”
Wallace did not report these events to anyone because she says there was no one to report to. Her superior had hired the entertainment.
But she says there were other times she reported misconduct and was told she was being too sensitive or that it was hard to fire people.
“Which, at that point, gave me the feeling like nothing is going to be done,” Wallace says. “I didn’t feel comfortable going to employee relations about this because I’d heard of a lot of people going to them and when they would speak up it would leak out, and I didn’t want any retaliation.”
Despite her experiences and complaints, when the media started reporting firings at Nike Wallace was taken aback.
“Things that have happened over my career at Nike I just thought was more IT, not so much Nike,” Wallace says. “We know being a woman in tech is difficult so when I was reading the things that came out about Nike I was surprised. But at the same time, (with) all the other things that have come out in the last year about the ‘me too’ movement, I’m not surprised either.”
The pros and cons of a “jock mentality”
Nike CEO Mark Parker addressed problems at the company in an apology to employees at Nike headquarters this month. For this story, Nike spokesperson Greg Rossiter emailed a statement:
We recognize and acknowledge that there have been behaviors inconsistent with our values that prevented some employees from feeling respected and doing their best work at Nike.
We are determined to take the insights that we’ve gained to build a culture that is truly inclusive and representative of diverse thoughts, backgrounds and experiences. We’re already taking action and will continue to drive change to elevate a culture of inclusion and respect.
D’Wayne Edwards was a designer for the Jordan Brand of Nike products and has since founded the footwear design academy Pensole in Portland. He says the laser focus on the athlete at Nike has made the company what it is today—from the successes to the shake ups happening now.
“There are certain pockets of the company where that jock kind of mentality kind of does exist,” he says. “And I guess it spills over into some of the corporate processes.”
He tells his students they should have a full understanding of who they are and what their employer is about before they start their careers. At Nike, he says the culture around athletics and the tendency to hire athletes meant a lot of people didn’t understand “that this is not the locker room. This is a corporate environment, and there’s a different way to act and behave.”
About half of the departing executives at Nike were people of color. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a memo to staff, HR executive Monique Matheson wrote, “we need to improve representation of women and people of color.”
But Edwards is skeptical, asking, “What are you doing to make that happen?” He doesn’t see evidence that Nike has a plan.
News of the dismissals have not hurt Nike investors, but some analysts see a link between the company’s domestic retail performance and problems at headquarters.
Liz Dunn, founder and CEO of Pro4ma Inc., says, “they’ve struggled with their efforts to market to women.”
Dunn notes that competitors Adidas and Under Armour—which also have headquarters in Portland—are doing better with women and are gaining on Nike in market share overall.
Nike is depending on the women’s market to reach its goal of becoming a $50 billion company by 2020. Parker has said 60 percent growth in the women’s market would make it possible.
But Dunn says, “they’ve had a lot of talent leave the organization. Not just these people who have been dismissed but also the women who have been leaving because their careers have been stalled.”
Ann Wallace says when she left Nike at least five other women did too. But some women have been promoted within Nike to some of the vacated positions and Wallace finds solace in that.
“I still have a lot of women friends who work there, so I hope their sake and whoever comes next it does change,” Wallace says. “I think it will.”