Research Findings

“Having it all?”: How multi-level marketing organizations exploit cultural pressures on mothers


October 28, 2021

A seemingly perennial debate in the United States is how women can reconcile competing work and family demands. Can mothers really “have it all” given the lack of institutional support and increasing pressure to engage in child-centric lifestyles? Many women pedaling pricey skin care regimes on social media claim they can. They also try to draw other women into their multilevel direct selling business with the promise that they can as well.

Multilevel direct selling organizations—classic examples of which include Amway Corporation, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Avon—have  thrived among women in the past because they provide a flexible, individualized solution to the time-bind plaguing mothers.

And yet, this industry’s continued success among women raises concerns given evidence that very few women achieve financial success and given lawsuits alleging that multilevel direct selling organizations are pyramid schemes.

For my recent article, I interviewed 27 women on their experiences working for the skincare company Rodan + Fields. I also spent four months doing ethnographic work training as a consultant and observing other consultants in person and online.

My findings show that many women join these organizations because they promise to solve work-family tensions through flexible work and a supportive culture. These organizations seem like a caring, feminine alternative to more traditional bureaucratic firms—designed for the unencumbered male worker.

Yet, I found that these organizations use the veneer of being pro-women as a business strategy. They co-opt the ideals of “having it all” and being a “good mother” to attract women workers and to then pressure them into doing underpaid and emotionally manipulative labor.

What are multilevel marketing organizations?

My study examines a network or multilevel marketing model of direct selling organizations, a large subset of the $35-billion direct selling industry in the United States. Consultants—three quarters of whom are women—are urged not only to sell products and services but also to recruit and sponsor family members and friends.

While many of these organizations in the past relied on parties within consultants’ homes, my study examines Rodan + Fields, a high-end skincare company that primarily uses consultants’ social media presence to sell products and recruit family and friends.

Compensation plans are heavily weighted to reward consultants for recruitment efforts, creating extraordinary income differentials between consultants with large teams and those focusing on sales. Accordingly, these organizations are often associated with pyramid schemes, and some have faced legal action. The perception of illegality may be exacerbated by ecommerce as some consultants focus more on recruitment online than product sales at a home party.

How multilevel marketing organizations exploit work-family tensions and motherhood guilt

My findings show that these organizations appeal to many middle-class, white mothers who feel structurally shut out of other jobs due to flexibility constraints, motherhood bias, and the high cost of childcare. These organizations promise a flexible opportunity to generate income, working a business from a smartphone alongside caring for children or doing other work.

These organizations recognize and exploit the cultural pressures on mothers to always be available to their children and to cultivate them for success in the capitalist economy—ideals that often seem incompatible with the demands of full-time jobs.

As such, team leaders often encouraged consultants to sell the idea that this business was a solution to the cultural contradiction of “having it all” through personal testimonials.

For example, some leaders recounted that, despite career achievements, they felt like “failures” for working full-time positions before quitting to pursue this work. One training asked recruits to practice their stories—often targeting the guilt they experience trying to live up to cultural ideals around motherhood in the United States—until they brought other women to tears. 

They also encouraged women to rely on social media, showing how they benefit from the flexibility their business affords them and posting an idealized representation of the work-life balance they hope to achieve. These women may depict themselves on social media as working their business flexibly from the bleachers of a soccer game.

And yet, these organizations do not bear the costs to make the flexibility they promise financially achievable. These costs are instead shifted to consultants, most of whom must rely on other sources of income—such as a male breadwinner family structure—to support their child-centric lifestyles.

Trainings—rather than providing a solution to work-family conflict—often reinforced the incompatibility of traditional full-time work with white, middle-class, heteronormative ideals about what it means to be a “good mother.”

The emotional labor behind multilevel marketing work:

In addition to exploiting women’s emotions as a recruitment device, my findings also show that these organizations exploit cultural pressures on mothers to overcome these women’s reluctance to do the job.

To succeed as a consultant, women must commodify their personal relationships, selling products and business kits to friends and family members who may respond negatively to their sales efforts.

But, the organizational structure allows Rodan + Fields to rely on top consultants to train their teams on how to feel about negative interactions with family and friends. To overcome women’s discomfort, training strategies focused on women’s desires to spend more time with their children. One training asked women to look at a picture of their children and tell them they weren’t worth it whenever they felt uncomfortable doing aspects of the job, drawing on the emotional labor tied to being an unavailable working mother to motivate women to sell.

Women who internalized this training accepted that the higher morality of being a “good mother” overshadowed their concerns about damaging other relationships or being associated with pyramid schemes.

How narratives of “having it all” reproduce women’s oppression

These findings show how a corporation can manipulate women’s investment in white, middle-class, heteronormative values—such as the incompatibility of being a “good mother” with full-time work—for profit.

My findings show that these women are buying into an individualist, capitalist ideology that good mothers do not rely on their partners, the state, or community networks for help, but instead raise their children and find work-life balance completely on their own. This ideology also forecloses communal modes of parenting practiced in queer and of-color family arrangements, and ignores  that U.S. women of color have always worked outside the home.

And yet, in seeking this balance through multilevel marketing work that imposes a transactional dynamic on their personal relationships, consultants may endure the emotional cost of further isolation from their community. The organization ultimately exploits the lower ranking consultants for the benefit of the organization and the few leaders who can “have it all.”

Rather than truly celebrating or financially supporting caretaking as pro-women organizations, my analyses show how these organizations contribute to gendered occupational inequalities. They reinforce and profit from the anxieties behind “having it all” and cultural narratives around motherhood in the United States.

Read more

Mallory E Rees. “Selling the Ability to “Have It All”: How Direct Selling Organizations Exploit Intensive Mothering Ideologies” in Social Problems 2021.

image:  Jernej Furmanvia Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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