Despite a number of campaigns touting equality for female athletes, Nike faces scrutiny for internal practices that hurt women.

Nike declared 2019 the “year for women”, but following a number of positive campaigns in 2018, 2019 has seen Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix cut ties with Nike after detailing how Nike’s sponsorship policies unfairly penalize female athletes who get pregnant and Felix later cut ties with Nike, and Mary Cain, a record-breaking track and field athlete, claim emotional and physical abuse at the hands of track coach Alberto Salazar, who led Nike’s elite Oregon Project.

Late in 2019, hundreds of Nike staff marched across the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon, to call for the company to make real changes in empowering female athletes and employees. The protest was tied to Nike’s reopening of a building named for Salazar. A flier for the event read: “Walk the Talk, Do the Right Thing.”

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In 2020 firms are going to come under even greater scrutiny, consumers want to be reassured that the values that the firms profess to hold are more than advertising slogans”

She continues “There were so many great sporting occasions in 2019, the Women’s Football World Cup and the Men’s Rugby and Cricket World Cups show casing not only the athletes but the brands that support and sponsor their sports. Here in the UK many more sports women joined the ranks of household names like Laura Kenny, Ellie Simmonds, Dina Asher-Smith, Jill Scott and Kat Johnson-Thompson, firstly as important role models for their sports but, secondly, as females, draw attention to inequalities and discrimination.

Companies like Nike are realising that sponsoring female athletes focuses a different sort of spotlight on their policies and practices as employers, and in sport, perhaps more than other sectors, accusations of foul play will have to be taken more seriously.”

For  further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s report Leaders at play: game-changing leadership from sport to workplace.