She Works Hard for No Money: Understanding Women's Participation in Multi-Level Marketing Organizations
AuthorFrederico, Krista Marie
AdvisorRoth, Louise M.
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction, presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
EmbargoRelease after 07/29/2022
AbstractOver 13 million U.S. women participate in the controversial multi-level marketing (MLM) industry. Advocates claim that the $36 billion industry provides flexible work opportunities for individuals interested in selling reputable consumer products as a licensed distributor within a sales network. Critics, including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, warn that these companies often have convoluted compensation structures designed to enrich only those at the top of the pyramid-shaped recruitment scheme. With hefty required expenses of overpriced products to maintain an active distributorship, over three-quarters of sellers fail to turn a profit and most report either breaking even or losing money. Given these odds, why do women join an MLM? And why do women stay involved long-term, even if they fail to reach their expected earnings goals? Drawing on participant observation, as well as 59 in-depth interviews with women affiliated with one of three fictionally-named focal MLMs (DermaDynamix, BeautifOil, and Cute Couture), this dissertation illuminates the impressive hard work—and dismaying lack of compensation—for women enrolled as sellers in the highly stigmatized MLM industry. In particular, this study explores the contradictory expectations faced in motherhood: the cultural ideals of “stay-at-home” motherhood, but also the need and desire of many women to generate an income and have career fulfillment, all in a neoliberal context of minimal governmental supports for families (e.g., paid parental leave and low cost child care) and protections against victimization by predatory organizations (e.g., punitive action against deceptive practices by MLMs). To straddle the cultural contradictions within motherhood, these MLM selling women intentionally brought paid work into the home, but then often endeavored to separate their paid work from their household work through various boundary work. For example, rather than work a simultaneous shift, or perform both care work and MLM work at the same time, 76.2% of mothers of young children reported using a temporal boundary of a “sleep shift” to meet their MLM work requirements once children were asleep. This gave them the opportunity to appear to be stay-at-home mothers while still pursuing MLM work, yet this exacted a toll on their sleep and self-care. Using a panel design, consisting of one interview within an average of just over two months since joining an MLM, then a second interview at approximately one year after joining, I found that none of the women reached their expected earnings. Women in the two focal MLMs with a less burdensome investment ($1,500 or less) earned $1.71 per hour, while women with much greater investment requirements of nearly $7,000 earned $10.36 per hour. The high upfront cost in one and the low earnings in the other left all women struggling for any realized earnings beyond their initial investment, leading 44.44% of women to leave the MLM by their second interview. To entice women to remain involved despite both the unmet earnings and unanticipated costs, organizations deployed neoliberal positivity messages, or messages that merge the free-enterprise, low-governmental-regulation emphasis on workers themselves to secure their own employment actualization with the self-help optimism of positive psychology. Women differentially drew upon these same frames in explaining their own behavior within the MLM, with upper-income women more likely to prioritize their personal development and reject responsibility for their failure, and lower-income women more likely to internalize and attribute self-blame to their lack of success. This study concludes that women, especially mothers, are highly interested in reliable and well-paid work-from-home opportunities. As more companies recognize women’s interest in flexible time and work-from-home arrangements, and harness available technologies to offer these options, they will marshal a determined and productive work force—much to their mutual advantage. Further, they may turn the tide away from the alluring, ephemeral promises of the MLM industry, finally delivering a decisive blow to largely unregulated “product-based pyramid schemes” in favor of dependable, well-paid, flexible work.
Degree ProgramGraduate College