More than a hashtag: Nike’s exodus of badly-behaved executives

More than a hashtag: Why Nike’s exodus of badly-behaved executives is so significant

Back in December 2011 I briefly departed from reporting and ventured into opinion writing for the very first time. The topic was sexual harassment in law firms and the impetus for the piece, in BRW, was a glaring hypocrisy.

I wrote:

“On the same morning that a freshly commissioned report from the NSW Law Society on advancing women in the legal profession lands on my desk, I am drawn to a story in The Sydney Morning Herald. Brimming with optimism and goodwill the Law Society report tackles a systemic issue confronting the profession. In stark contrast, the SMH article is laced with lurid details of conduct that is symptomatic of the very problem others are trying to fix.”

The Herald piece related to a case where a female lawyer had sued her employer, Clayton Utz, and a former male colleague for defamation, sexual harassment and victimisation.

The male, who was revealed to have engaged in some thoroughly unsavoury conduct, was not just defended at great expense by the law firm for his behaviour but he was rewarded. He was promoted to a senior associate role in the midst of the legal proceedings and remained, back then, an employee of the firm.

Her? Predictably, out of employment boxed into that category of difficult vexatious women with her motives and veracity greeted with scepticism. (As if suing a large law firm is an endeavour anyone would happily choose.)

It remains a depressingly universal tale but putting those words into print back then was exhilarating.

As a former lawyer and a legal reporter I was more than peripherally aware of the inclination in firms to accept unacceptable behaviour. I was acutely aware of how that could and did prompt many women to abandon the profession – an issue I was frequently told by firms was a paramount problem they wanted to stem.

Being able to articulate the gross hypocrisy between this stated goal and the behaviour that is too often permitted was gratifying because, back then, it wasn’t being written about. Not often and not in the mainstream media.

That has changed but the dynamic itself hasn’t. In the intervening seven years I have written about the issue of sexual harassment extensively and become infuriatingly acquainted with the chasm between rhetoric and reality in workplaces with regard to the treatment of women.

All of this is a very long winded way of explaining my reaction to the incredible New York Times report about a group of females at Nike revolting and causing an exodus of six senior male executives.

According to the report a group of women at Nike were fed up with the toxic culture. They took matters into their own hands and conducted a survey of female staff about the incidence of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

They put the results on the CEO’s desk and within weeks up to six men had either left the company or announced they would be leaving.

This type of upheaval is unprecedented in so many ways. Not only were there consequences but they were delivered swiftly and they went beyond the predictable offering of a single sacrificial lamb.

Among the executives who have left Nike are men who had previously been touted as chief executive candidates. And they’re now out.

There is plenty of fodder for dismay in the Times report: the behaviour, the discrimination, the harassment that was tolerated is appalling. As is the fact it is likely to be familiar to women in companies big and small the world over.

But there is fodder for hope in there too because while this type of behaviour isn’t new this type of response is new.  Wholly, unbelievably, thrillingly, new.

This is more than a hashtag and it’s more than a marketing stunt. It’s genuine change that was forced by a group of women coming together and saying enough is enough. It’s confirmation that when women unite they have power and are a force to be reckoned with. It is proof that time really is up and change isn’t just possible – but achievable.

Around the world women are uniting in various collective actions and it’s far from futile. In the US it started with the #TimesUp legal fund. In the UK women have joined forces to work behind the scenes together to demand equal pay.

Here, Now Australia has been formed as the nonpartisan not-for-profit organisation that can be a port of call for anyone experiencing sexual harassment, assault or intimidation in the workplace.

Now Australia, led by Tracey Spicer, is also fighting for legislative changes: extending the civil statute of limitations, introducing proper protections for freedom of speech and reassessing defamation laws, which protect the rich and powerful.

As anyone invested in gender equality can attest, the fight is maddening and the temptation to lose hope is very real.

But, honestly, reading about what those Nike women have achieved made me believe genuine change is underway. The kind of change that back in 2011 I really didn’t believe would ever occur.

Just do it, hey?

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