This first in-depth study of a cosmetics direct selling organization in Latin America considers how women's experiences in the informal employment sector can illuminate our understandings of work and gender in Ecuador and other developing countries.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Twenty-Five
Globalization and economic restructuring have decimated formal jobs in developing countries, pushing many women into informal employment such as direct selling of cosmetics, perfume, and other personal care products as a way to "make up the difference" between household income and expenses. In Ecuador, with its persistent economic crisis and few opportunities for financially and personally rewarding work, women increasingly choose direct selling as a way to earn income by activating their social networks. While few women earn the cars and trips that are iconic prizes in the direct selling organization, many use direct selling as part of a set of household survival strategies.
In this first in-depth study of a cosmetics direct selling organization in Latin America, Erynn Masi de Casanova explores women's identities as workers, including their juggling of paid work and domestic responsibilities, their ideas about professional appearance, and their strategies for collecting money from customers. Focusing on women who work for the country's leading direct selling organization, she offers fascinating portraits of the everyday lives of women selling personal care products in Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil. Addressing gender relations (including a look at men's direct and indirect involvement), the importance of image, and the social and economic context of direct selling, Casanova challenges assumptions that this kind of flexible employment resolves women's work/home conflicts and offers an important new perspective on women's work in developing countries.
Sara Whaley Book Prize
National Women’s Studies Association
- Introduction: Avon Ladies in the Amazon?
- Part I. Gender Relations: Women, Men, and Work
- Chapter 1. Multiplying Themselves: Women Direct Sellers Managing Productive and Reproductive Work
- Chapter 2. Men Make a Difference: Opposers, Supporters, and Drivers
- Part II. The Look: Images of Beauty, Professionalism, and Success
- Chapter 3. How Products Sell Themselves: Picturing Gender, Race, and Class in Yanbal's Catalogs
- Chapter 4. Embodying Professionalism: Constructing the Yanbalista Image
- Chapter 5. The Picture of Success: Prizes and Status in the Direct Sales Organization
- Part III. Direct Selling in Context: Careers and Consumption
- Chapter 6. What Would They Be Doing If They Weren't Selling Beauty Products? Women's Work Experiences in Context
- Chapter 7. Buying Beauty: Flexible Payment and Expanding Consumption
- Appendix: Methodology
"I am from El Guasmo, and I'm not embarrassed to say so," began María Bustamante, as she stood in front of a gathering of women direct sellers in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to make an announcement. El Guasmo is Guayaquil's most well-known poor neighborhood, located at the extreme southern end of the city. Although the infrastructure of El Guasmo has improved greatly since my first visit to the area in 1999, with many newly paved streets and small palms planted in the median, and fewer open sewage ditches, the neighborhood still lags behind other areas of the city. María, who sells products for a direct sales company called Yanbal, lives on one of El Guasmo's many unpaved streets; her home, like countless others, does not have running water in the kitchen. She lives on the same block as a few other sellers from her group, and very near her grown son and daughter-in-law and their two young children. Before joining Yanbal, María was a housewife, though she had completed a few years of college before her children were born. Getting together enough food to feed the family is a challenge for many families in María's neighborhood. About one-third of Guasmo residents earn below the monthly minimum wage, which was $200 per month in 2008. Although unemployment is high (12 percent for those aged eighteen through twenty-nine), more than a third of women (36.6 percent) are employed. This high rate of female participation in the paid labor force, relative to that of other neighborhoods, may be correlated with the high proportion of female-headed households: more than 30 percent of homes in El Guasmo are led by women. Many women are active in informal selling, making up part of the 55 percent of neighborhood residents involved in informal employment. (Informal employment is understood here as that which is generally not regulated by the state, includes no legal protections, and is not based on a formal contract between employer and employee.)
After the dusty, uphill walk to Narcisa Pazmiño Beltrán's cement-block house from the pharmacy where the taxi had dropped me off, Narcisa showed me the box cutter she was carrying for protection, hidden between the pages of the glossy, four-color catalog she used to sell cosmetics. This shouldn't have surprised me, given the worried look on the taxi driver's face as he drove away. When I had asked him to drive me to Bastión Popular, a neighborhood at the northern fringe of Guayaquil, he was surprised, saying I didn't look like I was from that area. When I explained I was meeting a friend, he warned me to be careful as there were "bad people" in the neighborhood. Poverty is common in Bastión, with more than one-third of residents earning less than minimum wage. One of the ways that Narcisa generates income is through her work with Yanbal, selling perfume, makeup, jewelry, and other personal care products. Because Bastión Popular is relatively isolated in terms of public transportation, Narcisa has to take two buses and travel two hours to get from her home to visit clients in the downtown area. Because of this geographic marginality, formal employment is scarce for Bastión residents; yet unemployment levels are comparable to those in more prosperous parts of the city, due to the whopping 55 percent of people working in the informal sector. As in other parts of Latin America, informal employment has been on the rise in Ecuador, largely because of the work of women like Narcisa.
Relative to "marginal" neighborhoods such as El Guasmo and Bastión Popular, the Barrio del Seguro, where Marjorie González lives with her husband and two young sons, is much more comfortable, with paved streets and some large finished houses. Marjorie's home is a high-ceilinged, ground-floor apartment next door to a school. When I visited her for the first time on a sunny afternoon in late 2007, many of the school's uniformed female students were milling about in the street, which was closed to traffic; their giggling and socializing could be heard from a block away. El Barrio del Seguro belongs to a category of neighborhoods that the INEC calls "consolidated areas," meaning that basic infrastructure and services (telephone lines, garbage pickup, running water, and electricity) are reliable. The consolidated areas of the city include several of the established neighborhoods, or ciudadelas, in the northern part of Guayaquil, most of downtown, and a few other regions. When statistics are consulted, the portrait that emerges of the wide swath of the city considered "consolidated" is one of relatively high levels of education, employment (including among women), and informal sector employment. Marjorie began her work life in the formal sector, as an office employee, and now earns an income by selling for a handful of direct sales companies, including Yanbal, as evidenced by the array of products displayed prominently in a glass-fronted cabinet in her dining room.
The research presented in this book represents a foray into what sociologist Mitchell Duneier (1999) has called the "extended place method" of ethnographic fieldwork. Rather than being a traditional ethnography based in one research site, this study reflects the working conditions of women selling cosmetics and other products for a transnational corporation, as well as my preference for following direct sellers through the city as they went about their daily life. I learned a great deal about the study's participants when we attended meetings or spent time in sales directors' offices together. In addition, I was able to get a deeper understanding of the social and physical spaces they occupied by accompanying them on walks through their neighborhoods, on visits to clients (which sometimes took place during such walks), or to social gatherings.
Although I felt I knew the city of Guayaquil, having spent time and conducted research there on and off since 1999, the Yanbalistas (Yanbal sellers and sales directors) opened my eyes to the tremendous geographic—as well as social and economic—distances that guayaquileños (residents of Guayaquil) cross in order to make a life for themselves and their families. These Yanbalistas include women like Narcisa Pazmiño, who, in the course of a typical day's work, travels from her home in the marginal northern neighborhood of Bastión Popular (the poetically named "People's Fortress") to visit clients downtown and in the south of the city, and then back to northern Guayaquil to place an order at her director's home office. When my feet were tired, Narcisa found the energy to keep going; this crisscrossing of the city is what puts food on many tables. Thus it is not place as such that interests me, but rather the places that people hold within webs of social connection that span and sometimes overrun the space of the city. My approach to ethnography also put all of my interactions in the field (in Ecuador and especially Guayaquil) under a sociological microscope, so that any time Yanbal came up in conversation, the discussion became data that fed my knowledge of this social world. I found out that nearly everyone I met, from a professor of economics at a local university to the woman who ran the stationery store on the block where I lived for several months, had a family member involved in direct selling or had been involved as either a client or a seller. By always keeping my eyes open for where Yanbal might appear, I was able to go beyond the social networks where my research began and discover other points of view.
During approximately five months in the field between September 2007 and June 2008, I was a daily or near-daily presence in the office of Yanbal group #105 and at this group's events in Guayaquil, led by Ligia García de Proaño, my husband's aunt. The office was located on the second floor of a six-story upscale professional office building in northern Guayaquil, across the street from a major mall. In the air-conditioned office and conference rooms, I acted as a sometime office assistant: answering phones; proofreading letters and e-mail messages; entering orders into the online system; helping prepare meetings, presentations, and prizes; setting up and running laptop computers and projectors during meetings; and assisting during meetings in various ways. When not in the office, I attended meetings at other directors' offices or at Yanbal's corporate offices in Guayaquil, spent time with "beauty consultants" (distributors, or low-level sellers) and sales directors in their homes, or accompanied them while they worked.
Over time, I moved deeper into the social world of the direct selling organization, going beyond the duties of researcher and ad hoc assistant. New activities included singing and dancing to the Yanbal anthems played at events, which I came to know by heart. Along with Ligia's daughter, Johanna, I choreographed and led a dance routine at the annual Christmas party for consultants in group #105. At another Christmas party, for the directors in Ligia's "family" network, I was asked to give a brief talk, speaking about micro-sociology and gendered communication styles to the nearly one hundred women in attendance. Some women from other groups who did not know me well simply assumed that I was a consultant or director or a part of Yanbal's corporate staff.
The event during which I felt most like a participant and least like a researcher was the national convention for the company's top directors, held in Guayaquil in the spring of 2008. Invited to attend the convention by the company's general manager in Ecuador, I was the only nonstaff attendee who had not earned the right to attend through a year of hard work. A somewhat uncomfortable feeling, of intruding on something that others had won, hung over me during the first day of the three-day event. By the end of the convention, however, that feeling had dissipated somewhat. I learned dance routines and the convention song along with the women; pushed my way to the front of lines just as the veteran convention-goers did; enjoyed some of the training/motivational sessions so much that I simply forgot to take notes; overate; and danced until my feet were swollen.
Direct selling organizations (DSOs) like Yanbal are often described as "feminine" organizations, a characterization that made sense to me after attending the convention. That I was six months pregnant at the time made making new acquaintances, especially among the dozen or so pregnant directors, much easier than it would have been otherwise. In two pregnancies, I had never before been so aware of my visibly pregnant body in interpersonal interaction. Although it may seem counterintuitive, being pregnant among five hundred women, most of whom have children, made me a minor celebrity. Combined with my being a foreigner and a student researching Yanbal's sales force, my round belly drew women to me; some launched into stories about their trajectory with the direct selling organization or their groups, and some wanted their photos taken with me. While I had found that being a mother had helped me create rapport with the women I met during my research, I did not usually have my son physically with me when I was in the field, so that my motherhood was more symbolic or abstract. Being pregnant brought my identity as a mother to a concrete, physical level, which heightened women's response to me; everyone wanted to touch my belly, share a childbirth story, or give a piece of advice.
I do not wish to make too much of my inclusion in the social world of Yanbal and its sales force. Several obstacles and power imbalances set me apart from the women I was studying, distancing me from them and making rapport more difficult to achieve. The first of these challenges was the double-edged sword of my connection to sales director Ligia García. Without this key informant and expert in all things Yanbal, and her generosity and openness, it would have been impossible for me to conduct this research. However, she is a highly visible and prominent person within this direct selling world. In many situations, my association with this successful and influential sales director and my identity as her "niece" outweighed my foreignness and my status as a student or researcher.
This personal connection had a diverse range of perceptible effects. Many people praised Ligia when speaking with me, calling her a role model or a leader, whom they viewed with respect, admiration, and deference. Some consultants and directors revealed things to me that they thought Ligia might disapprove of, quickly following these revelations with comments such as "Ligia doesn't know this" or "Don't tell la señora Ligia." Although she has no direct or enforceable authority over consultants or other directors, Ligia's opinion carries weight with these women. Based on her previous behavior or comments, sellers and directors felt that they could predict her reactions to their claims or activities. In a few cases, consultants who knew of my closeness to Ligia asked me to try to influence her on some small matter.
In addition to this high-profile connection with one of the country's most successful Yanbal directors, my identity as a North American, a gringa, distanced me from the research subjects. In this role, I was sometimes viewed and treated as a source of information and possibly money. Being from the United States takes on additional meanings in the context of Ecuadorian migration to my country, which is a long-standing pattern that has accelerated in recent years. One direct seller asked me if I could help her find her brothers, who had migrated to the United States and gotten "lost," disconnected from the family in Guayaquil. Another asked my advice as she struggled with the decision of whether to send her four-year-old granddaughter, whom she was raising, to live with her paternal grandparents in New York.
Another woman joked that she wanted to move to the United States and become my domestic employee, a joke that felt hollow, as if an invitation from me could instantly make this far-fetched idea a reality. This made me feel uncomfortable and shattered for me any illusion of rapport that could reach across socioeconomic or national differences in this particular interaction. This woman was also the most excited about the modest honorarium I gave to interviewees, recommending no fewer than three of her "daughter" consultants to be interviewed, in what I perceived as an effort to spread the gringa's money around within her social network. In fact, my decision to give sellers money to compensate them for the time they spent with me in interviews was generated by my consciousness of the economic chasm between us, a situation in which what represented a manageable expense to me was a significant amount of money to them. Ironically, I am not sure whether this monetary gift did not, in some cases, simply call attention to our differences in resources and status.
Each of the three parts of this work examines direct selling in Ecuador from a slightly different angle. Taken together, these sections represent an in-depth exploration of a social world that is unique, yet can illuminate our understandings of work and gender in Ecuador and other developing countries.
The first part presents a gender relations perspective on direct selling. Chapter 1 uses the experiences of women to critique the image, promoted both by direct sales organizations and by the academics who study them, of direct selling as the ideal work for women seeking to balance paid employment with domestic responsibilities. Chapter 2 focuses on the role of men, whose direct and indirect involvement in this economic activity, on their own or in relation to female partners, shapes the work of direct selling in Ecuador.
Part II discusses the emphasis on image within this cosmetics DSO. Chapter 3 uses qualitative content analysis to examine the messages of beauty, gender, race, and class conveyed through the visual and textual language of Yanbal's sales catalogs. The cultural valuation of whiteness and upper-class status is juxtaposed with the phenotypic and financial realities of most Ecuadorians. Chapter 4 looks at how the idealized image of the Yanbalista is constructed through both official training materials and interpersonal interactions among women affiliated with the DSO. This chapter considers how cultural norms of feminine appearance are related to the material conditions in which women live and work. Chapter 5 uses ethnographic data to show the importance of images of success and status within the DSO, which is structured around prizes, contests, and effusive recognition of top performers.
Part III places the experiences of women direct sellers in the context of labor and consumption in contemporary Ecuador. Chapter 6 attempts to answer the question of what women would be doing if they were not working in direct sales. This hypothetical question leads to a discussion of work histories, multiple income-earning strategies, and future career plans of direct sellers. These experiences are considered in the context of expanding informal employment, the lack of part-time work in the formal sector, and employment discrimination. Chapter 7 attends to the consumption piece of the direct sales picture, since every act of selling is also an act of buying. The ways that direct sellers manage customers and determine payment structures are explored here, and the perspectives of clients are included. The background for these informal exchanges is the expansion of consumption in urban Ecuador and Guayaquil in particular, which I have witnessed in nearly a decade of conducting research there.
The conclusion relates the study's findings to the social scientific literature on gender, work, and globalization and reiterates the ways in which cultural norms and material conditions interact to shape the world of direct sales in Ecuador and women's experience of it.
Editorial Conventions Used in This Book
All the names used in this book are real, except where noted (one change was made to protect the individual from the possible negative consequences of sharing his story). Given the choice between using their real names and using pseudonyms, the participants in this study elected to be identified. I concur with Linda Seligmann, who wrote regarding her decision not to use pseudonyms: "These are real people; others can talk to them, and they can talk back. We live in the same world" (2004, 11). In Ecuador, people have two legal surnames: one from their father, followed by one from their mother. For example, if a woman's mother was named Alexandra González Martínez and her father was Alonso Herrera Comín, she would be María Herrera González. Thus, maternal surnames usually drop out of use after a generation. Married women generally continue to use the same last name(s) all their lives, although some keep their paternal surname and add the preposition "de" and their husband's paternal surname. To give an example of this, if María Herrera González married Juan Santos García, she could refer to herself as María Herrera de Santos. She would most likely keep the surnames she was born with in legal documents, however. To make matters a bit clearer, I tend to use both surnames the first time I introduce a study participant in these pages, and only the first surname thereafter. For women who use the married form of their name, I refer to them by that entire name or simply use first and last (maiden) name. When interviewees gave me only one last name, I present their name as they initially reported it to me, respecting their self-representation, even if I had access to records listing both of their last names.
In terms of the written representation of language in this book, all translations are mine, and I have included the original Spanish text in brackets in places where I felt it was important to show the colloquial expression or maintain the flavor of the person's speech—places in which I would, as a bilingual reader, be wondering about which words the subject used, exactly.
Regarding quotations of participants' statements, in instances where I am certain about the exact wording of participants' speech (from transcription of recorded interviews or verbatim quotes written down immediately), I have either formatted their words as block quotations or enclosed them in standard quotation marks. In cases in which I wrote up participants' verbal expressions at the end of the day in field notes and cannot be certain of the exact wording, I have enclosed their words in single quotation marks. In these instances, I am confident that the meaning of the utterances remains more or less unchanged, although I cannot claim that the exact wording is consistent with what was said.
Perfume Becomes Political
When the distributors and sales directors of Ecuador's largest direct selling corporation, Yanbal, returned to work in early January 2008 after their Christmas and New Year's holidays, they encountered an unpleasant surprise. The administration of Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa Delgado, had passed a wide-ranging tax reform law. One provision of the new law was the Impuesto a los Consumos Especiales (ICE), a tax on "special" purchases. Taxes were raised on goods and services that were perceived as unnecessary for meeting basic daily needs, such as cigarettes, liquor, and cable television. But the tax that directly affected Yanbal—and its more than 100,000 distributors—was the one on perfumes. The original proposed tax on perfumes had been 35 percent, but intense lobbying by Yanbal and other affected parties brought the rate down to 20 percent, which was effective immediately upon passage of the law in the final week of December 2007. The first two weeks of 2008 were chaotic, as Yanbal distributors learned of the tax and had to pass the bad news on to customers. A tax of 20 percent increased the cost of some already costly perfumes by $12 to $15, and the company's online ordering system had to be reprogrammed to automatically add in the tax, along with the existing sales tax of 12 percent.
The tax law was part of President Correa's campaign to make the country's traditional elites contribute more tax revenue, in an effort to redistribute wealth in Ecuador, which is ranked sixteenth in the world in terms of income inequality (UNDP 2008). But Yanbal distributors and sales directors strongly objected to the portrayal of their products as luxuries for the rich. In an emotional letter to directors and salespeople, Yanbal Ecuador reiterated its Ecuadorianness, saying that the company was committed to the development of the country and created jobs for Ecuadorians, not just as distributors (sellers), but also as workers in the plants that produced some of the products sold. After meetings in Quito between government officials, Yanbal's corporate executives, and high-ranking sales directors, some directors took matters into their own hands, pushing for collective political action. The issue came to a head on January 25, when women direct sellers took to the streets in Guayaquil (Ecuador's largest city and the primary site for this research) and Montecristi (the site of the Constitutional Assembly) to protest the tax. These sellers insisted that the fragrances they sold were not special consumables but were for average Joes and Janes, not the superrich. One sign at the Montecristi protest read: "The elites buy Coco Chanel, but the majority buy national [Ecuadorian-produced] perfumes from us" (El Universo 2008c). A cartoon in El Universo, the leading daily newspaper in Guayaquil, poked fun at the new tax law, and specifically the idea that only wealthy people use perfume (BONIL 2008).
For many Ecuadorians, perfume is viewed not as a luxury or optional item but as a key element of everyday personal hygiene and acceptable self-presentation. Ecuadorians spend $13 million each month on perfumes, much more than the $6.7 million they spend on cosmetics and the $5 million on soap (Escobar 2006a). As the most recognized purveyor of perfumes in the country, Yanbal stood to lose millions with the introduction of the ICE.
Yanbal and the people associated with the company found themselves at the center of a political storm because of their dominant share of the perfume market. They defended their right to be exempt from the tax by highlighting the humble origins of many distributors and consumers and interpreting perfume as a need rather than a luxury. Ligia García de Proaño, my husband's aunt and a high-ranking Yanbal director, was so livid about the new tax that she called a person who used to sell in her group, a military man who was then working as President Correa's bodyguard. The bodyguard agreed to let Ligia know where the president could be found next time he was in Guayaquil. And one afternoon in late January, the supreme strategist Ligia (along with her "mother" director) made sure she was eating chicken alongside the president in a small restaurant in northern Guayaquil. When the ladies sidled up to Correa after his meal, they complained about the tax. He told them that he was familiar with their plight and that the new tax on perfumes was a mistake that he intended to fix.
The president repeated this sentiment on his national radio show on February 2, 2008, saying he had been meeting with representatives of Yanbal in order to find a way to keep perfume prices from changing, thereby ensuring that the distributors' "commissions weren't hurt and that they continue selling and earning their little bit of money [su platita]" (El Universo 2008b). It is possible that the president downplayed the economic gain of the women to make it seem like his modification of the new tax policy was of no great consequence. By validating the assumption that sellers were not earning much, however, Correa reinforced stereotypes that trivialize this type of women's work. The idea implicit in his statement is that these women are not supporting their families but just contributing a little something, making up the difference between the family's income and expenditures, or earning pocket money for themselves. In the end, Yanbal's staff and sales force succeeded in lowering the ICE on many items and eliminating it on others; the tax was also added to the manufacturing price rather than the sale price of each item, lowering the amount paid and meaning that less of the tax was passed on to customers. Because the strong demand for perfumes continued unabated as prices stabilized, sales were up to record numbers by the middle of 2008, although they later dropped.
The Present Study
This book examines how cultural norms and material conditions shape Ecuadorian women's direct selling work. Cultural norms include socially accepted ideas about gender (femininity and masculinity), work, and family. The material conditions of women's lives are an amalgam of socioeconomic status/social class, income, social networks, and education. In her groundbreaking work The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild introduced the concept of "gender strategy," defined as "a plan of action through which a person tries to solve problems at hand, given the cultural notions of gender at play" (2003 , 15). In analyzing the experiences of urban Ecuadorians involved in direct selling, I argue that women's (and men's) gendered economic strategies represent the reconciling of cultural norms with material conditions. That is, gender strategies pertaining to income-generating activities take into account not only the dominant cultural narratives of gender but also the concrete socioeconomic situations in which individuals, couples, and families find themselves. In some cases, as will be shown throughout this book, cultural ideals are adapted, reshaped, or challenged by individuals' gendered economic strategies due to the exigencies of survival within a given set of material conditions and limitations. Although the word "strategy" implies a certain amount of choice (Benería 1992), choices are always constrained, especially for the poorest members of society.
The primary concern of this study, then, is to shine a spotlight on the interplay and connections between cultural norms and material conditions and how these cultural, social, and economic "givens" frame women's economic activities, including direct selling. Taking seriously the suggestions for feminist research laid out by Mohanty—to explore "women's own ideas of their work and daily life" and begin to "take apart the idea of 'women's work' as a naturalized category" (2003, 74)—I examine the conditions of women's work in the sales force of a transnational corporation and relate these conditions to ideas about gender roles.
While I am primarily interested in showing women's lives, work, and perspectives, I also use their stories to shed light on the paradox of Yanbal's success in Ecuador's unpredictable and sometimes downright chaotic economy. I asked executives in Yanbal Ecuador's corporate headquarters to explain why, out of the eight countries in which the company operates, Ecuador consistently has had the highest sales volume. They responded that, because of the country's small size and high rates of poverty, multinational corporations have not seen expansion into Ecuador as profitable. With fewer cosmetics, fragrances, and personal care products coming in from outside the country, Yanbal had an open field in which to manufacture, import, and distribute its products.
Although I don't dispute this claim, I argue that the flexible nature of this type of selling also allows people to access what are perceived as high-quality products and leads to higher sales volume of Yanbal products than many retail-based brands. Simply put, clients can pay for their Yanbal products a few dollars at a time rather than having to come up with the entire $50 cost of a perfume, an option that they do not have in many formal retail settings. Because the items sold by Yanbal are costly and valued elements of an attractive self-presentation, they are seen as desirable; because they can be paid for over time, they become affordable. This direct selling organization (DSO) has managed to weather serious economic crises and retain its sales force through the selling power of the brand, the company's ability to take advantage of social and cultural valuation of appearance and hygiene, and flexible payment arrangements between sellers and buyers (discussed in detail in chapter 7). Yanbal benefits from the fact that many Ecuadorians, as the protesters correctly claimed, see items like perfume as necessary for daily life, not as a luxury for the elite.
Women and Direct Selling in the Ecuadorian Economy
Ecuador is located in the northwestern corner of South America, between the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon rain forest, and is bordered by two other Andean countries, Colombia and Peru. The population is currently 13.9 million, with more than 1.5 million (possibly as many as 2 million) Ecuadorians reportedly living abroad; popular migration destinations include the United States, Spain, and Italy (Jokisch 2007; Jokisch and Kyle 2008). It is estimated that approximately two-thirds of the population are of mixed ancestry (primarily European and indigenous; these Ecuadorians are referred to as mestizo by demographers and other social scientists. Another quarter of the population is said to be indigenous, although these percentages are hotly debated in political and academic circles. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of Ecuadorians are black, or Afro-Ecuadorian; the national census, which most likely undercounts blacks, gave a figure of 4.9 percent in 2001 (Halpern and Twine 2000; INEC n.d.). The country is divided into four distinct geographical or ecological zones: the Pacific coast, the Andean region, the Amazon, and the Galápagos Islands. The capital city is Quito, but the most populous is Guayaquil, with just under 3 million residents in the metropolitan area. A full 38 percent of Ecuadorians lived in poverty in 2006 (World Factbook 2008); and in Guayaquil, 87 percent were poor (Floro and Messier 2006, 235).
Ecuador has primarily been an agricultural society since its independence from Spain in 1822, and although import substitution industrialization was attempted more than once (Weiss 1997), the country never industrialized to the extent that some of the larger South American nations did. The focus on agricultural exports that essentially began with the cacao boom of the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century has reappeared again in more recent periods, with export-oriented banana and flower cultivation. The discovery of oil in the Amazon region in the 1960s and 1970s shaped economic development policies, funding development programs that extended the life expectancy of Ecuadorian citizens, increased school attendance, and reduced infant mortality, leading to the assertion that "much of the oil income was well spent" (Moser 1993, 177). Oil, along with bananas, is now one of the country's largest export sectors (Weiss 1997). Because of this orientation toward exports as the primary path to economic development, it can be argued that the Ecuadorian state has evolved through "a transnational lens," and this is especially true of Guayaquil, historically and currently the country's largest international port (Goetschel 1999).
Guayaquil has historically been a magnet for migrants from other parts of the country, in an urbanizing trend similar to that of other Latin American nations. The population of Guayaquil more than doubled between 1960 and 1982 (from 500,000 to 1.2 million) and then nearly doubled again between 1982 and 1988, rising to 2 million (Moser 1993, 179). Today about three-fifths of Ecuador's population lives in cities (Radcliffe 2008, 285). Much of Moser's description of the city, written in the 1990s, still holds true:
Guayaquil's commercial activity is focused around the forty grid-iron blocks of the original Spanish city, which in the 1970s were encircled by inner city rental tenements. To the north on higher ground are the predominantly middle- and upper-income areas, while to the west and south are tidal swamplands which provide the predominant area for low-income expansion. Settlement of this peripheral zone, known as the suburbios (literally suburbs) occurred between 1940 and 1980 when the low-income population excluded from the conventional housing market invaded this municipal-owned swampland (1993, 179).
Thus, the increase in population has been accompanied by the city's "spatial expansion" (Moser 1993, 182). Since the geography of the area has made expansion southward less feasible in recent years, a new ring of lower-income settlements has risen outside of the well-to-do neighborhoods at the city's northern edges.
Structural adjustment policies—changes in national economic strategies and budget allocations—that were implemented in order to obtain International Monetary Fund loans in the early 1980s resulted in increased unemployment, high inflation rates, and a reduced social safety net, consequences also seen in other parts of the world. These changes affected women differently from men, adding to their unpaid work in the home and making the household's daily maintenance more difficult (Lind 2005; Moser 1997; Pitkin and Bedoya 1997; Rodríguez 1994). Moser (1993) identified three groups of low-income women affected by structural adjustment in Guayaquil in the 1980s: those who were "coping," those who were "burnt out," and those who were just "hanging on." Structural adjustment also contributed to a rise in income inequality, and at one point in the early 1990s, Ecuador had the most skewed income distribution in Latin America (Weiss 1997, 17). Ecuador's debt represented a higher proportion of its gross domestic product than that in other indebted nations such as Brazil and Mexico (ibid., 9).
In response to a crisis of foreign debt and radical fluctuations in the national currency, the sucre, Ecuador adopted the dollar as its currency in 2000 (Beckerman and Solimano 2002). Although there are debates about the effects of dollarization, Ecuadorians generally agree that goods and services became more expensive after the switch to the dollar. This benefited some independent businesspeople, such as taxi drivers, who could now charge a minimum of one dollar per trip. Consumers saw their money disappearing at quicker rates, however. As a family member put it to me, "We were talking calmly about thousands and millions [of sucres]," and all of a sudden, something costing just one dollar seemed cheap. People tell me that they are still sometimes shocked when they translate dollar amounts back into sucres and realize how much more everyday items cost relative to pre-dollarization average prices. Most Ecuadorians did not benefit from dollarization, and it did not reduce inflation as aggressively as it was intended to do (Lind 2005, 137).
Since the 1999–2000 economic crisis that led to the adoption of the U.S. dollar as Ecuador's official currency, the economy has experienced growth, with significant interruptions and a great deal of political instability (Beckerman and Solimano 2002). Current president Rafael Correa Delgado was elected in 2006 on a platform of social programs funded in large part by oil revenue, and a more defiant stance toward international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Correa also promised to rewrite the country's constitution, a process undertaken by the elected Constitutional Assembly; the final document was approved by the voters in 2008. (The Constitution had previously been rewritten in 1998.) Much has been made of Latin America's "turn to the left" in recent years, and scholars debate the extent and consequences of the changes made by leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. It is unclear what effects new policy stances (such as defaulting on debt and the nationalization of the petroleum industry) will have for citizens.
Although Ecuador was the first country in Latin America to extend the vote to women, the country was a bit late (in comparison with its neighbors) in developing a feminist movement (Rodríguez 1994). Women's movements have tended to focus on local and community issues, and the lack of a powerful national movement means that smaller movements "create diverse relationships with political parties, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], churches, and local governments" (Radcliffe 2008, 287). Laws establishing sex-based quotas for candidates for elected office have been passed but not enforced, despite the inclusion of women's rights provisions in successive versions of the Constitution (ibid., 293). Recent scholarship has examined women's social movements—some of which identify themselves as feminist and some of which avoid that label—at both the local and national levels (Lind 2005; Prieto 2005; Radcliffe and Westwood 1996; Rodríguez 1994). Most of the women in my study fit Radcliffe's description of Guayaquilean women who, disenchanted by political corruption and clientelism, "have disengaged from collective actions, being forced to 'hang on' to a precarious set of survival strategies" (2008, 287).
Globalization, Informal Sector Growth, and Direct Sales
As in other Latin American countries, employment in the formal sector in Ecuador has declined rapidly in the past few decades, and employment in the informal sector has risen. Informal work is "unprotected," "neither 'on the books' of employers nor regulated by the state" (Poster and Salime 2002, 191). Examples of informal sector jobs include domestic service and small-scale selling. In Latin America around the year 2000, informal employment currently made up 51 percent of all nonagricultural employment, and nearly 60 percent of working women in the region were engaged in informal employment (ILO 2002). Although some new employment opportunities have emerged, as in the flower export sector, 6.1 percent of Ecuadorians were unemployed in November 2007 (the rate had dropped from 9.9 percent in January 2007), and 46 percent were underemployed (Gestión 2007, 82). By March 2009, with the spreading effects of the U.S. economic crisis, 14 percent of Guayaquil's residents were unemployed, and nearly 51 percent underemployed (El Universo 2009). It is estimated that one million Ecuadorians have emigrated just since 1999 in search of work in countries such as the United States, Italy, and Spain (Jokisch 2007). These conditions are caused by internal economic dynamics and decisions made by Ecuadorian politicians and businesses, by global economic processes, and by international bodies and multinational corporations.
Some scholars of globalization focus on the expansion of multinational corporations from their bases in the "First World" into the "Third World" (Salzinger 2003; Sklair 2000; Tabb 2001). Such growth is led by a transnational group of managers, chief executive officers, and financial advisers that Sklair (2000) has called the "transnational capitalist class." Multinational corporations are often seen as pushing out domestic competitors and taking advantage of lower labor and production costs in developing countries to produce goods cheaply and export them to other countries, thereby increasing profit margins for owners and shareholders. As production facilities move across borders, so do the products of multinational corporations, expanding the range of options for consumers in both poor and rich countries. Studies on global capitalist expansion that do not depart from a feminist perspective often overlook the people involved, focusing on the corporation or the domestic or global economy. Feminist researchers have assembled a growing body of micro-level studies of women participating in global processes, which have as yet had little impact on macro-level theories of globalization (Freeman 2000).
When individual people (especially women) are the unit of analysis in studies of economic globalization, the purpose is often to expose exploitation or the mechanisms by which these workers are incorporated into transnational corporations. Research has often examined the position of "Third World" women workers vis-à-vis corporations headquartered in the United States and Europe (Fernández-Kelly 1983; Freeman 2000; Salzinger 2003). Such studies illuminate the ways in which ideas about women workers that originate outside the countries in which they work interact with homegrown ideologies about women's place in society. These insights are useful; however, they are limited in that they generally take into account only women working in fixed workplaces (e.g., factories, data processing centers) that are part of the formal economy.
While international financial institutions and multinational corporations that fit the traditional labor-capital model are major engines of economic globalization, direct selling companies are increasingly crossing geographic borders and tapping into a mostly female labor force using radically different methods from those of, say, the maquiladoras in export-processing zones. Direct sales organizations, including Avon, Tupperware, and Amway, have been expanding into new markets in Asia and Latin America, a strategy that has proved successful and profitable for these companies (Cahn 2006; Hopkins 2007; Vincent 2003; A. Wilson 1999). It is the work of the millions of women in the sales forces of these companies that generates this profit. In the context of narrowing opportunities in the formal economy, and the low status of many types of informal work, selling for a transnational direct sales organization is often an appealing option.
Background on Direct Sales
Direct selling is the marketing of consumer goods by representatives (known as distributors) of the producers of the goods to customers, bypassing the typical system of fixed retail locations. It is characterized as a "low cost, low entry-barrier, business opportunity that allows individuals, mostly women, to work a flexible range of hours selling branded goods for commission" (Brodie, Stanworth, and Wotruba 2002, 70). The elimination of the overhead costs of retail stores allows direct selling organizations to return some of the profit made on the products to distributors as commission and can potentially increase the company's profits over those of a traditional retail operation. In addition, since distributors are nominally self-employed, direct sales companies do not deal with payroll administration or offer benefits such as health insurance for the workers in their sales force.
When DSOs rely on current distributors and sales directors (distributors with advanced standing) to recruit new sellers, they are referred to as "network direct selling organizations" or "multi-level marketing organizations" (Brodie and Stanworth 1998; Cahn 2006). According to Nicole Biggart, whose 1989 book Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America is probably the most well-known study of direct sales in the United States, network DSOs are characterized by the creation of "sponsorship lines that create financial ties between distributors" and a "formal status hierarchy" based on recognition, prizes, and titles. The network form of organization is now the most prevalent in direct sales. Avon and Yanbal are two such organizations, in which distributors who reach a certain level gain a percentage of their recruits' sales. The distributors who oversee these lower-level sellers are the "upline," and the people they have recruited form their "downline" (Biggart 1989, 16). Within this type of organization, notes Pei-Chia Lan, distributors act as consumers, retailers, and recruiters (2002, 169). In Yanbal, as in the U.S.-based Mary Kay and other DSOs, the relationships between distributors are analogized to family roles, so that a distributor is a "daughter" (hija) to her "mother consultant" and "mother director" (madre directora), who recruited her into the organization and continue to supervise and mentor her. Subgroups of distributors (people connected by the same sponsor) are sometimes referred to in industry parlance as "genealogies" and are depicted by family tree–type diagrams in both the academic literature and administrative materials produced by the corporations (Biggart 1989, 17; Lan 2002, 176). In many cases, people who are family members in real life are also connected in the DSO world, which is a unique feature of direct sales: "by distributing their goods . . . through vast networks of ordinary people, companies extend their reach into intimate spheres and personal relationships" (A. Wilson 2004, 164).
Direct sales is a $113 billion business employing nearly 63 million people worldwide, 80 percent of whom are women. In Ecuador in 2008, direct selling brought in $400 million, with a sales force of 380,000. Despite these impressive figures, it is generally agreed that the direct sales sector experiences an annual turnover rate of 100 percent among distributors (Biggart 1989, 156; Cahn 2006, 129). High turnover can be explained in part by the self-driven nature of the work and the lack of penalties for dropping out. Some turnover is seasonal; for example, some Ecuadorian women join to earn enough money for Christmas gifts for their families, and then stop selling once the holidays are over. For network DSOs and dedicated distributors, this means that constant recruitment is required. Most direct sales companies offer distributors some type of training, ongoing assistance, and support, often delivered by sales directors at support centers such as the one Peter Cahn (2006) studied in Mexico and those that served as some of my research sites for this book. Events (meetings, seminars, parties) rely on materials produced by the company to both sell products and recruit distributors. As Ara Wilson notes, "the direct sales mode is comprised of discourse: of messages conveyed in catalogues, sales techniques, inspirational meetings, promotional materials, and advertisements" (1999, 78). These texts draw on and create desire for products while also constructing desirable identities for consumers and sellers. (Yanbal's catalogs are analyzed in detail in chapter 3.)
The academic literature on direct sales has significant lacunae and limitations. There is a lack of ethnographic data, which means that we do not often see the everyday lives and perspectives of distributors. Three important aspects of direct selling merit further examination. First, as feminist scholarship has shown, socially constructed ideals of femininity in male-dominated societies give rise to intricate rules regulating feminine behavior and physical appearance. Women transmit their class (and/or ethnic) identities and aspirations through dress and appearance. There has yet to be an in-depth study of a single cosmetics DSO, which is an ideal avenue for analyzing the construction of femininity and the commodification of beauty in everyday life.
Second, studies of women distributors have sometimes tended to look at them as the prototypical actors of economic theory: as isolated, autonomous, rational individuals. However, women are embedded in households in which they have domestic responsibilities and must contend with the demands of caring for husbands or partners and/or children. Women's decision to begin selling cannot be viewed outside of this context, especially in societies with relatively rigid gender roles. The perceptions of family members and the negotiations that take place between them must be brought more fully into the picture. Since direct selling involves women from many different social class backgrounds, by studying this type of work we can also compare how work-family conflicts are dealt with in households of different socioeconomic status.
Finally, with all the talk of selling in the literature on direct sales, consumption tends to get lost in the shuffle. Each act of selling is also an act of buying, so why do scholars often talk only to sellers and not consumers? The burgeoning social science literature on consumption—which largely neglects direct sales—presents the opposite problem: a focus on consumers to the exclusion of sellers. Each act of consumption is also an act of selling. A study that draws on the insights of each approach can illuminate the links between buying and selling in this personalized sales sector; to do this, research must be conducted with consumers, and sales interactions must be observed, documented, and analyzed. Of course, the argument can be made (as in Cahn 2006) that most sellers begin as consumers, but this is not a sufficient exploration of the topic. Why do some consumers become sellers while others do not? How does the consumption of these products fit in with other consumption practices? How do social class, social networks, and gender come into play in buying and selling? Although this study primarily focuses on sellers, it fills a gap in the literature on direct selling by also conducting research with buyers in order to better understand the dynamic selling relationship.
It is worth looking at how Yanbal came to operate in Ecuador and how it became the leader in its field. Founded in Peru in 1967, the company recently celebrated thirty years of doing business in Ecuador. Like many DSOs such as U.S.-based Mary Kay, the image of Yanbal is closely linked to that of its founder, Fernando Belmont. According to Yanbal's general manager in Ecuador, Belmont learned about direct sales during his college education in the United States, thought that the model could be successful in Latin America, and returned to Peru to found Yanbal. Belmont later emigrated to Argentina, launching Yanbal subsidiaries in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico. When he returned to Peru, he founded a company he called Unique, due to conflicts over rights to the name Yanbal between Belmont and his brothers (who had taken over Yanbal when he left the country). Belmont's company has grown in terms of revenue and the number of official distributors and has expanded geographically. Today Yanbal operates in seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. There are more than 500,000 Yanbal consultants in these countries (Yanbal n.d.). In 2006, Yanbal decided to follow the waves of Ecuadorians migrating to Spain, and currently 3,000 women are working as Yanbal beauty consultants in that country (Correa and Velasco 2007, 126). There is talk of expanding to the United States, with its large populations of immigrants from Latin America, many of whom already know Yanbal/Unique products from their home countries.
Yanbal was named number forty-six on a recent list of Ecuador's five hundred largest companies, compiled by the national news magazine Vistazo (Correa and Velasco 2007). The company's sales increased 24 percent from 2005 to 2006, with reported revenues of $125 million. In the personal care and beauty sector, Yanbal is the second-highest seller, just behind the multinational corporation Unilever and beating out not only Avon and other DSOs but also Colgate Palmolive, Procter and Gamble, and Johnson and Johnson (ibid.). The company was one of the fifteen named "most respected" in Ecuador by the business magazine Líderes in 2007. Yanbal Ecuador is the second-best company to work for in Ecuador, according to a new survey of employees (not distributors) by the organization Great Place to Work (Vistazo 2008, 33). It is the most recognizable brand name in cosmetics and has the largest market share of fragrances (Escobar 2006b, 27; Hoy 2005). In the realm of direct selling, Yanbal's major competitors in Ecuador are Avon (a U.S.-based multinational), L'Bel (formerly called Ebel, a Peruvian company owned by Fernando Belmont's brother), and Oriflame (a Swedish company).
Direct Sales as Informal "Women's Work"
Women's work must be examined in relation to their economic alternatives in a given setting. What would they be doing if they weren't selling? Is direct selling seen as more gender-appropriate than other types of work? Is direct selling the only income-generating activity distributors are engaged in, or is it one piece of a multipronged economic strategy on the part of the woman and/or the household? These questions are drawn from the literature on women and work in developing countries, and they go beyond the tendency to categorize women's work as formal or informal, part-time or full-time.
The informal economy in Latin America, as elsewhere in the developing world, has exploded in the last few decades (Benería 2003; Benería and Feldman 1992; Portes, Castells, and Benton 2004). Women in the paid labor force are disproportionately engaged in informal work, which accounts for 51 percent of all employment in Latin America (Benería 2003; ILO 2002). Women's "multiple income strategies" (Rothstein 1995) often include participation in both formal and informal employment either simultaneously (as in Freeman 2000) or at different times, as well as multiple forms of informal employment (Weiss 1997, 21) and combinations of "wage labor and self-employment as well as temporary migration" (Benería 2003, 112). In some households, the informal economy is the primary source of income, with formal employment complementing or supplementing informal earnings (Pérez-Alemán 1992). Such a combination of strategies, and the appeal of informal sector work, can be explained in part by women's primary responsibility for caring for the home and family, which "continues to have an impact on their choices and ability to participate in paid production" (Benería 2003, 119). In addition, neoliberal economic policies have made the daily tasks of what some scholars would call "social reproduction" more difficult by reducing government support and social programs (Benería 2003; Lind 2005; Moser 1989). Feminist economists including Lourdes Benería and Nancy Folbre have examined the economic and social value of women's unpaid domestic work and "care work" as part of a growing body of feminist research that Benería (2003) has called the "accounting for women's work project." This unpaid work affects women's participation in informal as well as formal labor markets (a topic further explored in chapter 1).
Is direct selling an informal economic activity? It is not highly regulated by commercial laws, and distributors are nominally self-employed rather than being official employees of DSOs, meaning that they are not guaranteed job security and do not receive health insurance or other benefits (Elson 1999, 616). In addition to the distributors who are officially registered with the companies, there are also legions of people who informally "help" these official distributors in various ways. Thus, there are degrees of informality in the business of direct selling. Yet informal and formal economic activities and actors are often connected. As Linda Seligmann puts it in her description of the informal sector in Peru, "the chain of intermediaries within the informal market economy is closely intertwined with the production and sales processes of formal economy businesses, and the chain itself facilitates the circulation of products in an inefficient economy" (2004, 87).
Despite the informal aspects of their sales forces, DSOs do have legally employed staff, from janitors and factory workers in manufacturing plants to accountants and experts in marketing and psychology. In addition, direct sales differs in important ways from other activities commonly called informal, such as market selling or illicit activities like prostitution. Direct selling organizations, and the activity of direct selling itself, seem to have a foot in both the informal and formal economy, an increasingly common situation as the "neat dichotomies between 'formal' and 'informal' work are breaking down" (Elson 1999, 617). In terms of the actual daily activities and the lack of a fixed workplace, direct selling looks most like informal work. In the case of direct sales and similar types of work, artificial conceptual boundaries between work done in the "public" sphere and work done in "private" become less relevant.
In some developing countries, direct selling is an increasingly attractive income-earning strategy, especially for women, due to its ease of entry and self-directed work process. Direct sales organizations benefit from cultural norms and structural forces that steer women away from full-time jobs in the formal economy, and they also benefit from the material conditions that lead to women's need to earn an income. The findings of this study underline the importance of examining direct sales as a rapidly expanding type of work, a formal-informal hybrid that appeals mainly to women and helps promote the expansion of consumer capitalism around the world. The women whose experiences are presented here are part of the "feminization of labor" (Standing 1999) occurring in developing countries, yet their work takes place largely outside the formal economy and outside the prototypical globalized workplace of the export processing factory. As in-depth studies of formal sector employment have shown, women's work must be considered not only in terms of the needs and discourses of transnational corporations but also in relation to locally produced ideals of gender and locally specific social and economic conditions (Bank Muñoz 2008; Freeman 2000; Friedemann-Sánchez 2006; Salzinger 2003).
DSOs as Gendered Organizations
According to sociologist Pei-Chia Lan, DSOs are "often portrayed as homelike settings characterized by horizontal cooperation and affective bonds, in contrast to other workplaces governed by the principles of bureaucracy and competition" (2002, 165). Indeed, social scientists studying these companies often insist on their differences from more "typical" capitalist firms. Biggart argues that the mixing of family and work and the assigning of familial terms to work relationships leads to a "'feminine' form of organization qualitatively distinct from 'masculine' forms" (1989, 71). This familial aspect is clearly seen in Yanbal, with its "mother" directors and their "daughters" and "granddaughters." Hierarchies are based on recognition of achievement rather than authority or control over subordinates, and the emphasis is on creating a supportive and noncompetitive environment in which all distributors can succeed, according to Biggart's model.
Around the time of the publication of Biggart's Charismatic Capitalism (1989), feminist thinkers were beginning to elaborate theories about the masculine character of organizations in U.S. society. Rather than viewing bureaucratic and administrative structures as gender-neutral and rational, and seeing the human inhabitants of these structures as gendered, Joan Acker (1990), Dorothy Smith (1989), and others urged us to consider the possibility that organizations themselves were gendered. This gendered character was evidenced by such phenomena as the persistent gendered division of labor within organizations and the symbols, images, and language that upheld such divisions. The image of the ideal worker in management and business literature was masculine; that is, only men tended to lack domestic and outside responsibilities, a precondition for "existing only for the work" as the business discourse demanded. Acker envisioned an alternative to masculine organizations, a type of firm that would value care work, have no hierarchy, and "where work and intimate relations are closely related" (1990, 155).
Some direct selling organizations, in particular those with a primarily female workforce, appear to be a type of gendered organization that is not masculine. For one thing, these companies explicitly and symbolically define themselves as feminine, and are "unabashedly women's worlds" (Biggart 1989, 93). Avon calls itself "the company for women." Mary Kay's signature color is pink, down to the Cadillacs awarded to top distributors. Tupperware is associated with a traditional domesticity centered on the kitchen and the feeding of the family. In the past few decades, these feminine organizational identities have left the companies open to criticism by feminists and satire by drag queens and others who enjoy toying with gender stereotypes (Vincent 2003).
In these organizations, as in Yanbal, the consumer is generally assumed to be a woman, as is the distributor. Yanbal actually requires that prospective distributors be female, although resourceful Ecuadorian men have found ways around this restriction (see chapter 2). Unlike many economic organizations, these DSOs are built on the assumption that the selling interaction is an all-female one, with a female seller and a female consumer. In the catalogs of cosmetics DSOs, most products are oriented toward adult women, with a much smaller selection of items for men and children. This hyperfeminine image obscures not only the actual involvement of men in the creation and distribution of Yanbal products but also the realities of the customer base, which, according to Yanbal Ecuador's general manager Robert Watson, is 54 percent male. According to distributors, male customers buy items for themselves (especially colognes) and for the women in their lives. Some sellers told me that they prefer to have men as customers because they pay more promptly; according to these distributors, male clients are embarrassed by the thought of owing money to a woman.
The working conditions of distributors for women-oriented companies seem to support Biggart's assertion that direct selling organizations are "feminine." Direct selling organizations that target women to be sellers stress the flexible nature of the work and the opportunity to combine income-generating activities with domestic responsibilities. As Biggart points out, "being able to care for family needs and work at the same time serves both the material and emotional needs of women" (1989, 58). Rather than supporting the traditional division of work from home, and public from private, DSOs "claim to offer an alternative to the model of separate spheres" (ibid., 72).
The appeal to women who need to earn money but feel obliged to take care of home and children is obvious. In theory, distributors set their own hours, decide how much to work, and can work from home or have children accompany them to meetings or parties. It is easy and relatively inexpensive to become a distributor (Yanbal requires an initial outlay of $16 for the starter kit) in comparison with starting up another type of business, and there are few or no penalties for dropping out of the DSO. Rather than valuing "masculine" characteristics such as competitiveness, DSOs are said to promote personal qualities and interactions that women are socialized to perform anyway, such as nurturing, cooperation, and emotional expressiveness (Biggart 1989). In some ways, these organizations seem to approximate Acker's dream of a firm that will value and respect care work, mute rigid hierarchies, and meld the personal/social and the public/economic. As Biggart puts it, "DSOs have almost no rules and . . . few managers" (ibid., 5).
To some extent, my findings in chapters 1 and 2 challenge the image of DSOs as kinder, gentler capitalist organizations. Men are involved in Yanbal's operations at all levels, from its male founder to the men who, while not formal distributors, sell or "help" sell products. Many women in Yanbal's sales force have not reconciled the demands of the work with their domestic responsibilities, and some are living in situations of active conflict with male partners over their choice to work in direct sales. This conflict seems to stem from these men's opposition to the women working and from a rigidly gendered household division of labor, rather than from any particular dislike of direct sales or Yanbal. I also found that, despite the talk of nurturing and cooperation, competition between sellers and (especially) sales directors was encouraged by company officials and the women themselves. Yanbal Ecuador's top manager confided that he finds women to be even more competitive than men and that this is a major motivating factor for the members of Yanbal's sales force.
Despite the debatably "feminine" characteristics of DSOs, the question remains of whether direct selling empowers women. Ariel de Vidas correctly states that "the network of feminine social relations underlying the Tupperware sales system does not automatically make Tupperware a feminist organization" (2008, 274). Biggart (1989) claims that individual women are empowered by the self-affirming experience and the economic advantage gained through direct selling, but that the industry does not challenge macro-level gender hierarchies. Wilson (2004) shows how direct selling allows women to expand the boundaries of their social worlds beyond kin networks, but their local/domestic feminine identities are supplemented with cosmopolitan feminine identities that do not critique gender inequalities. Yanbal, Avon, and other cosmetics DSOs encourage women to take care of themselves and value their own needs (Vincent 2003, 184), but this could also be read as encouraging an oppressive preoccupation with appearance and the body that is already promoted by mainstream cultures.
In material terms, the chances of women radically improving their socioeconomic status through direct selling are small, and although the success stories are real and are constantly retold by DSOs, the average distributor will not become wealthy through her work selling cosmetics or Tupperware. Even the most "feminine" DSOs and those with female figureheads are often run by men at the highest corporate levels. In Yanbal, the founder of the company and its general manager are both men from Peru, although the founder's daughter is increasingly visible in promotional material and at events in Ecuador. During the period in which I conducted fieldwork, men also tended to run the company's marketing division and led other departments as well. These men are formal employees of the corporations as opposed to the thousands of women who act as "independent contractors," and they reap the benefits of this more privileged position in the form of higher and more stable incomes and more social prestige. Of course, there are also many powerful women on the corporate side, whose incomes and prestigious jobs distance them from the women in the sales force.
In terms of the empowerment question, work as a Yanbal beauty consultant or director entails what I call "moments of empowerment," in which constraints of traditional gender roles are temporarily lifted. For example, promotional photographs advertising men's fragrances or other men's products always feature hunky male models. In group meetings, consultants frequently engage in objectifying these models and make loud, overtly sexual comments about the men's appearance, often at the goading of directors or Yanbal staff. These catcalls, and women saying that they would like to take the model home with them ("just for a night," as one Yanbal coordinator put it), lead to delighted laughter and help lighten the tone of the meeting. Such sexualized commentaries by women are highly censured in public speech, but within the confines of an all-female meeting, women are free to express sexual desire and frustration with the constraints of married life.
In another instance, in fall 2007, Yanbal held pop music concerts in Guayaquil and Quito for consultants and directors who had met a certain sales target. Prior to the concerts, consultants were explicitly told that only women should attend the event, and only those who had earned a ticket. Despite this, some women obtained extra tickets and brought their spouses to the concert. At the Guayaquil event, unsuspecting men were harangued by groups of women as they entered the concert venue. The women shouted things like "Go home and wash the dishes!" They were claiming the space as theirs by virtue of their gender and used their numerical majority to temporarily invert gender roles and show the men that they weren't wanted. These are examples of "moments of empowerment" made possible by women's involvement in the DSO. In general, however, it is up to individual women to construct their gender identities, devise gendered economic strategies (plans for economic action based in gender ideals and material conditions), and negotiate their place in their families and communities.
As gendered organizations, Yanbal and other direct selling companies often claim to provide opportunities for women to balance paid work and family responsibilities. This idea of the DSO as "the company for women" (Avon's corporate slogan) sets up expectations about valuing women's private and public work and helping women to improve their economic conditions. As is shown in the next chapter, the situation of women direct sellers on the ground is complicated by gendered norms of work and family and the multiple demands that are placed on them as wives and mothers.