Perspective: Barbara Ehrenreich on the Wal-Mart Suit

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Stephanie Odle, a plaintiff in the suit, hugs a friend after a news conference in San Francisco

Earlier this week six female employees of the nation's largest private employer, retail chain Wal-Mart, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the store of sex discrimination. Although over seventy percent of Wal-Mart's hourly employee's are female, they account for only a third of all management. The women allege the retail chain engaged in unfair practices in the training, payment and promotion of its female employees. TIME contributor Barbara Ehrenreich worked at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota doing research for her latest book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America" which looks at the lives of minimum wage workers in America. Ehrenreich sat down with to talk about her experience there: During your time working at Wal-Mart did you observe men and women being treated differently?

Barbara Ehrenreich: No. I didn't see any blatant discrimination. Most of the floor clerks were female, but I did encounter some female managers. Being that I was working at the most entry level, I wasn't in a position to see any upper management.

Truthfully I was actually impressed by Wal-Mart's corporate stance on discrimination. They seemed to take it very seriously. We had a lengthy computer training and were told very clearly not to discriminate against our fellow employees, based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. One of the vignettes they used was one on gender bias. They showed a man telling a woman she "couldn't" do some type of job related act (such as lifting) because she was a woman. They made it very clear this type of behavior wouldn't be tolerated. So the case is interesting because if it's true, Wal-Mart seems not to be following it's own rhetoric.

Were you at all surprised by the lawsuit?

You have to remember that Wal-Mart is one of the largest (if not the largest) retailers in the country. So I'm surprised, but I'm not surprised. Being so large, in some respects it acts as if it's above the law. For instance, one thing I was surprised to find out from other employees is that Wal-Mart doesn't pay overtime. I was shocked — since it's such a flagrant violation of the law. They seem to take a "let's wait and see if we get challenged on this" and then we'll fight, approach.

What types of women did you work with?

There were a whole range of women that I worked with. They ranged in age from women in their 20's to women in their 70's. In the store I worked at they were mostly white and natural born Americans. Many were mothers. A lot had second jobs because they were unable to make a living wage on their Wal-Mart earnings alone. Some would work an eight-hour shift one place then turn around and put in six hours at Wal-Mart. They had families that depended on them.

Did many of them have aspirations of moving up within the company, to say, floor or store manager?

It wasn't clear to me how you would even do that (be promoted). I didn't run into many women who talked about moving up or seemed to be thinking in that way. Their immediate concern was making a living.