A look at the decades-old relationship between working women and multi-level-marketing
In the midst of putting together this article, a Facebook friend messaged me “Happy birthday.” I was surprised to say the least, given we’ve never spoken, but regardless, I thanked her. It wasn’t until she responded with a deal on her NuSkin products that I realized what was really going on.
It’s a familiar scenario for most people these days–friends, family, and coworkers alike reaching out as distributors for Amway or Herbalife. Whatever product they’re hoping to sell, more often than not, it’s a woman behind the unexpected offer in your inbox.
“Women and multilevel marketing (MLM) companies have gone together since Tupperware and Mary Kay launched in the middle of the 20th century as ways for housewives to make money and get products to women in rural areas,” says Laura Richards of the Washington Post. Fast forward to today, and that relationship hasn’t dwindled.
The numbers behind women and MLMs
Women made up 74% of direct sales as of 2019, despite their now normalized presence in the office. More importantly, these statistics exist despite the common perception of MLM companies as scams. The internet is teeming with incriminating stories and statistics, including a cautionary page by the Federal Trade Commission. Most MLM distributors make little to no money, the site reads. Some even lose it.
While their use of person-to-person or direct sales is what sets multilevel marketing companies apart, that’s not what causes distrust. Just like McDonalds makes more money by having local franchisers, an MLM makes money by having a distributor do the leg-work of selling in their area, building a broader base of clientele.
The trouble comes when MLM companies have questionable requirements of their distributors–large start-up costs, recurring fees, pressure to overbuy stock, and stress on recruiting others. That demand for recruitment creates the suspiciously pyramid-like structure, while also saturating the market. MLMs may not care. The more distributors, the more people buying product from the company. Even if there’s no one left to sell it to, the company’s money is already made.
What the women in MLMs say
While these kinds of red flags serve as warnings, the testimonies of direct sales women themselves do the opposite. Kionna, a distributor for It Works! Global, had glowing reviews of her three years with the company, which became her main source of income after six months. “I went from working 55/60+ hours a week to ‘I sit down and work my business for two hours a day,’” she said, six days a week. Meanwhile, she says she gets to visit family whenever she wants, work with a supportive team, and empower fellow women as clients and distributors.
This kind of feminist rhetoric is common in the MLM biz, branding as a source of agency for women with promises like schedule flexibility and promotion opportunities. Why? They know there’s a market for it. Despite progress made, women still struggle to find equality in the workplace today, be it the wage gap, the promotion gap, expectations to bear a heavier domestic workload, or safety in the office.
According to the Center for American Progress and 2018 census data, as of 2018, Hispanic and Latina women made $0.54 to the white man’s dollar, Black women made $0.62, and White women made $0.79. Meanwhile, despite holding 48% of entry-level positions, only 72 women get promoted for every 100 men, according to Marianne Cooper for CNN Business.
One more MLM benefit women take into consideration
Working women can’t even count on safety in the office. A minimum 25% of women experience workplace sexual harassment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. One woman I spoke with actually left her job and joined an MLM not long after being sexually assaulted by her boss.
So why are women still investing themselves in potential scams, given the myriad opportunities afforded them? Maybe it has something to with these workplace inequalities still going strong. While many women put up with their boss’s misogyny or being overlooked for promotions, others, maybe tired or frustrated, might seek an escape from that disparity in an MLM’s bright, shiny promises. And it could be that seeing some of these basic needs better met in the workplace means less women ditching conventional jobs for a shot in the dark at something better.