Class-action lawsuit on Nike: ‘where women are devalued and demeaned’

Four women are suing Nike, claiming their former employer has for years perpetuated a culture of unequal compensation and sexual harassment.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Portland, is among the first to hit the Washington County company since a wave of complaints about pay disparities and bullying managers became public earlier this year. In response, the company parted ways with at least 11 executives in March and April, though it never publicly accused them of anything.

Laura Salerno Owens, an employment lawyer at Markowitz Herbold in Portland, said the executive purge was too little, too late. “Nike has a real good-old-boy’s culture,” she said.

“Women came into the company paid less than men, then they are ranked more

harshly and, as a result, got smaller raises and bonuses. I think Nike wants to say that ‘Just a couple people were responsible for the problem and we’ve gotten rid of them.’ But we know that’s certainly not the case.”

The most senior of the ousted executives is Trevor Edwards, former Nike brand president. The plaintiffs allege that Edwards was ultimately dismissed because he “caused and exacerbated a hostile workplace environment towards women.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive published a lengthy piece about Edwards, Nike’s troubled culture and why he was the first to go in last spring’s executive purge.

The plaintiffs accuse Nike of violating the Federal Equal Pay Act; the Oregon Equal Pay Act; and the Oregon Equality Act. They don’t ask for specific monetary damages. Rather they seek a court order requiring Nike to pay its employees fairly without regard to gender.

The company has publicly acknowledged it has a gender- and racial-equity problem, which could complicate its defense efforts. As the complaint points out, in April, the current

Human Resources Vice President, Monique Matheson, stated, “[w]hile we’ve spoken about this many times, and tried different ways to achieve change, we have failed to gain traction — and our hiring and promotion decisions are not changing senior-level representation

as quickly as we have wanted.”

“The numbers don’t lie,” Salerno Owens said. “On a global scale, currently 77 percent of Nike’s leadership team are men; 71 percent of its vice presidents are men; and 62 percent of its directors and senior directors are men.”

Salerno Owens added: “I’ve represented more than 50 Nike employees, and their experiences have been consistent with the plaintiffs.’ The more senior the job title, the smaller the percentage of women.”

The plaintiffs — Kelly Cahill, Sara Johnston, Samantha Phillips and Tracee Cheng – all used to work for the company.

Cahill worked for Nike for four years. Much of that time she served as a brand marketing director for Nike.com.  In 2017, she claimed in the lawsuit, she was paid $20,000 a year less than a male co-worker doing much the same job.

She filed four complaints against her boss, Danny Tawiah, who was one of the 11 executives who left the company last spring.

Nike’s human resources department took no action, the suit alleges. Cahill quit and went to work for Adidas.

After earning her undergraduate degree in economics and her MBA from Willamette University, Johnston worked initially part-time at Nike. From 2008 to 2017, she worked as an account services representative and later a business systems analyst.

She alleges that a male co-worker made sexual advances that included emailing her nude images of himself. When she rejected his propositions, the suit says, he retaliated by blaming her for problems, withholding information and refusing to attend meetings she was conducting.

She went to her bosses to complain around February 2016. “In response, one of the Directors said, in effect, that Nike has a culture that revolves around alcohol, that Ms. Johnston should let the incidents go, that the rise of the internet and cell phones have made drunk messages part of this generation, that she should be less sensitive to these messages,” according to the lawsuit.

The situation escalated after Johnston claims she learned this same male co-worker was propositioning other women and had groped another. She again tried to lodge a complaint with human resources.

The department took no action and the male co-worker was promoted to a position where he would work more closely with Johnston.

She quit not long after.

Nike’s human resources department, which was supposed to investigate workers’ complaints, was part of the problem, the complaint alleges. The department was run by David Ayre for most of the last 10 years. The complaint alleges Ayre himself “caused and fostered a hostile work environment towards female Nike employees.”

The company conducted at least two internal investigations into Ayre’s conduct before his departure last year.

The plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction against Nike prohibiting practices that lead to gender discrimination and ask that it be required to “develop and institute reliable, validated, and job-

related standards for evaluating performance, determining pay, and making promotion decisions.”

It also asks for unspecified monetary damages and “reasonable” attorney fees.

Nike officials declined to comment.

— Jeff Manning

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