For decades, Nike has committed itself to gender equity. As a teenager, I was taken by the company’s empowering messages to young female athletes like myself as it rode the coattails of Title IX. For years I slept next to a poster of a young white woman running along an open road. It read, “There are clubs you can’t belong to. Neighborhoods you can’t live in. Schools you can’t get in to. But the roads are always open. Just do it.”
Yet, even as Nike marketed empowerment to middle- and upper-class girls like me in the U.S., the company was hit by accusations of abusive practices against poor, young female laborers in its factories around the world throughout the 1990s. As it struggled to recover from these critiques in the early 2000s, the company poured over $100 million into programs for poor adolescent girls in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as a solution to ending poverty through its philanthropic brand, the Girl Effect. After a decade of investing in adolescent girls around the world, the company seemed to have recovered from its tarnished image despite sporadic media coverage of labor unrest in its factories.
But a powerful internal uprising of Nike’s female employees this spring has exposed the company’s toxic gender culture from its C-suites on down. The recent investigation by its employees into pay inequity, lack of female executives, and a pervasive “boy’s club” resulted in a spring housecleaning of the company’s top executives and called into question the company’s commitment to gender equity.
Nike isn’t alone. My research over the past decade shows that corporate programs focused on empowering girls and women through their philanthropy and corporate social responsibility efforts often circumvent a fundamental contradiction: Their business practices exacerbate gender inequality even as they claim to invest in girls and women.
Take the recent case of Apple. Interviews with Bloomberg News in January revealed that workers at an Apple contract factory in China are working in dangerous labor conditions, including standing for excessive hours and handling chemicals without proper protection. As widely documented, workers in Chinese manufacturing are overwhelmingly poor, young uneducated females. The following week Apple announced it was partnering with the Malala Fund, founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, to support education for 100,000 girls in India and Latin America.
Commitments by Walmart and Gap to invest in girls and women over the past decade despite ongoing class action lawsuits against Walmart for gender discrimination and numerous scandals in Gap’s contract factories provide further evidence of this contradiction.
But surely these corporate programs to empower girls and women must do more good than harm? While some of these programs indeed serve individual girls and women in beneficial ways by providing safe spaces and mentoring, and introducing them to new skills and professional opportunities, these companies are ultimately sidestepping the problem at the heart of the matter.
If they genuinely want to serve girls and women, they first need to clean up business practices at home and abroad that put girls and women at risk. They can no longer take up the cosmetics of gender equality without its substance. This necessitates they ensure safe working conditions; pay equitable, living wages; allow workers to organize across their supply chains; provide health insurance and paid family leave; fortify public systems by paying proper taxes; and eliminate gender discrimination and sexual violence in the workplace.
These actions would be far more sustainable long-term solutions for ensuring girls’ and women’s well-being from their executive suites and retail stores to their factories than quick-fix, short term philanthropic programs that change at the whim of a board of directors or with the shifting tides of global development.
Kathryn Moeller, is an assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, and the author of The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development