image: Nike

Nike’s marketing as a company that believes in female empowerment could not be further from the reality, according to a new lawsuit. Two former Nike employees filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the sportswear giant this week in an Oregon federal court, alleging that Nike has created a hostile work environment for women, who are paid less and have fewer opportunities for advancement than their male colleagues despite comparable experience and performance. And in case that is not enough, the plaintiffs claim that Nike failed to address formal sexual harassment complaints from female employees.

According to the damning new lawsuit, which was filed on Thursday by Kelly Cahill and Sara Johnston, who are both currently employed by rival adidas, Nike “intentionally and willfully discriminates” against women in terms of “pay, promotions, and conditions of employment.” The plaintiffs claim that women are systematically “marginalized and passed over for promotions,” in large part because Nike “judges women more harshly than men, which means lower salaries, smaller bonuses, and fewer stock options.”

Ms. Cahill, for instance, a former producer and director at Nike from 2012 until 2017, was paid a salary of per year “$20,000 less” than a male peer. Johnston similarly received less pay than a male equivalent during her early tenure at Nike, alleging that her $33,000 “non-negotiable” starting salary was less than a male employee who was hired 2 months later. Despite the man’s “lower-level credentials” and less experience compared to Johnston, his starting pay amounted to $35,000.

The plaintiffs go on to assert that women were subjected to widespread harassment on the job, including being called “dykes” on more than one occasion while at work. Johnston, in particular, alleges that she was sent nude photos from a male co-worker, and when she requested he stop, he retaliated against her by withholding important work information from her and refusing to attend meetings she scheduled. Johnston said she lodged multiple complaints with HR, which did not take action. Instead, the male co-worker was promoted.

“Women’s complaints to human resources about discrimination and harassment, including sexual assault, are ignored or mishandled,” they claim. David Ayre, who ran the Nike HR department for the past decade before he left the company last year, “caused and fostered a hostile work environment towards female Nike employees,” according to the suit.

In addition to seeking class action certification in order to enable other similarly situated women to join in the suit against Nike, the named plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages and injunction relief, which would bar Nike from engaging in practices that lead to gender discrimination.

They have also asked the court to require Nike to “develop and institute reliable, validated, and job-related standards for evaluating performance, determining pay, and making promotion decisions” in hopes of obliterating the current hierarchy, which is “an unclimbable pyramid — the more senior the job title, the smaller the percentage of women.”

The suit comes after Nike came under fire this spring when a group of female employees approached CEO Mark Parker with a survey they had conducted among fellow Nike employees centering on gender discrimination, which swiftly made headlines and resulted in Parker restructuring his leadership team. Parker announced that then-President Trevor Edwards, who “was being groomed to be a possible successor to Parker,” per CNBC, would retire in August, while Nike ousted at least 11 executives and announced raises for 7,000 employees after conducting an internal review of its pay practices.

Nike did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

* The case is Kelly Cahill and Sara Johnston, et al. v. Nike Inc., 18-cv-1477 (D.Ore).