Ding dong, flexibility calling: Direct home sales and the promise of work-family balance

Another exhausting day of meetings, emails, a mile-long to-do list, and a traffic jam for the icing on the cake. You run into the daycare center fifteen minutes after closing, more concerned about the “here we go again” look from the caregiver than the extra fee. The night ahead looks just as harrowing: homework, dinner preparation and cleanup, chores, and bath time. Lather, rinse, repeat. There has to be something more.

In response to the time crunch/squeeze/bind of the middle-class hurried-up life, experts advise women to lean-in, opt- out, or learn how to have it all.  Could changing the structure of work offer a solution to the work-family dilemma? The direct home sales (DHS) industry shouts, “Yes!” Week after week, women put on a smile and ring the doorbell at the home of a friend/neighbor/co-worker for a girls’ night out: to enjoy some wine and appetizers, share some laughs, and shop for products in the comfort of the hostess’s home. There, a DHS consultant will also describe the benefits of a job (a term she actively avoids) that allows her to choose when, where, and how much she works. No more gut-wrenching choices about leaving work early to pick up the kids from daycare. No glass ceilings to shatter since she determines how much she will work and hence, earn. No stuffy workplace where fun is not allowed. Too good to be true?

Mullaney_blogimage_August 2013In Paid to Party: Working Time and Emotion, we explore this question by interviewing DHS consultants, surveying party guests, and observing regional meetings to understand the interpersonal dynamics behind the success of the 31 billion dollar industry (baskets, make-up, kitchen gadgets, sex toys) and the socio-cultural messages of flexibility and freedom that promise an end to the time bind.

In the book, we examine how DHS promises to change the way women experience the temporal and emotional aspects of work and family by telling women that they can have it all. However, while DHS may help women manage the conflict between paid and unpaid work, it does not shift the larger cultural meanings attached to work and family. In fact, the downside of a model of ultimate flexibility is that others fail to recognize it as a form of legitimate work. DHS may give women power over when they work and how they feel about it, but this falls short of the structural changes needed for true freedom from the work-family bind.

 By Jamie L. Mullaney and Janet Hinson Shope on their book, Paid to Party: Working Time and Emotion in Direct Sales, reviewed in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.


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