After several track and field athletes criticised Nike in an op-ed in the New York Times for discrimination towards pregnant women, the company announced changes to its maternity leave policy. Tennis star Serena Williams has now come to her sponsors’ defence, saying Nike has “learnt from its mistakes”.
Nike reserves the right to reduce pay based on athletic performance but does not exempt its pregnant athletes from that policy. Williams said Nike has changed its outlook, citing the company’s support for her as proof.
“I feel like, as time goes on, as technology changes and as, you know, the world changes, people realise that we have to change our policies,” said Williams, according to CBS Sports.
“And I think that Nike wanted to do that, and they started doing that. And so I think they made a really bold statement by doing that with me, and I think they’re going to—I know, actually, that they’re going to continue to make that statement.”
CBS Sports explains that Nike’s generosity towards Williams could be motivated by her success in tennis—at the time she was pregnant, she had qualified for the Wimbledon and US Open finals. Nike’s brand popularity benefits from its association with Williams.
Track athletes slam Nike in NYT op-ed
On May 12, the NYT published an op-ed by track athlete and US national champion Alysia Montaño titled ‘Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby’. Montaño spoke to well-known athletes Phoebe Wright and Kara Goucher who detailed their experiences while being sponsored by Nike.
Montaño went viral on social media for being the “pregnant runner”, who competed while 34 weeks pregnant.
Referring to Nike’s viral promotional videos, Montaño said, “Many athletic apparel companies, including Nike, claim to elevate female athletes… But that’s just advertising.”
She explains that track athletes get most of their income from exclusive sponsorship deals with sports apparel companies; the prize money from races is the bonus. Montaño adds that when Nike offers these deals to track and field athletes, male executives usually lead the negotiations.
She writes that despite publicly claiming to support family planning, Nike’s executives do not guarantee their athletes a salary during pregnancy or early maternity leave. Nike can also reduce pay “for any reason” if a sponsored athlete does not meet their performance targets; and the sports company does not exempt pregnant women from that clause.
Montaño quotes Wright, an athlete formerly sponsored by Nike, who said, “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete… There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”
Montaño also spoke to Olympian racer Kara Goucher who said Nike would stop paying her salary until she began competing again. So Goucher not only made many unpaid official appearances for the company but also scheduled a half-marathon three months after giving birth despite her son being “dangerously ill”.
“It took such a toll on me mentally and physically, for myself and for my child,” said Goucher to Montaño. “Returning to competition so quickly was a bad choice for me. And looking back and knowing that I wasn’t the kind of mother that I want to be—it’s gut wrenching.”
Goucher added that Nike has also suspended pregnant athletes without pay, not merely reduced their salaries.
Nike makes amends
After coming under fire for its practices towards pregnant athletes, Nike announced that it will amend its policies.
Nike Spokesperson Sandra Carreon-John said, “We’ve recognised Nike Inc. can do more, and there is an important opportunity for the sports industry collectively to evolve to better support female athletes.”
Nike said it would stop reducing pay for its pregnant athletes for 12 months.
Montaño reports that Nike did admit to reducing athletes’ sponsorship payments while they were pregnant but promised to change that policy in 2018. However, the company did not clarify if it included those changes in contracts.
Nike has now said that it will include— in writing— protections for women athletes in their contracts.
Pregnant women discriminated against at the workplace
According to the Family and Medical Leave Act, American employees are guaranteed 12 weeks off and job security, but no guarantee of paid leave, says CBS News. Only six states and Washington D.C. offer paid leave.
Montaño explains that discrimination against pregnant athletes sponsored by sports companies persists because many of them sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking about their experience.
She adds that sponsored athletes are considered independent contractors, so American laws that protect pregnant employees don’t apply to them.
Policy revision in India
In 2017, India amended its maternity leave policy, giving mothers 26 weeks of paid leave from work.
The Economic Times, however, notes that the current maternity leave policy in India triggers female unemployment and discourages small businesses from hiring women in a country that already lacks women participation in the workplace.
Economic policy scholar Aparna Mathur says that this policy being employer mandated—meaning the employer must provide full pay—is problematic as it increases the likelihood of discrimination.
Mathur adds that paid parental leave should be gender-neutral, available to both mothers and fathers, and be enforced in rural areas and the informal sector, as well.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius.