An Historic Opportunity for Direct Selling: How direct selling can build on and improve its appeal to women.
“Mom, c’mere! I made you something!” yells five-year-old Zeke Purkey.
“WHAT did you make me?” asks his mother, Amanda Purkey, who is FaceTiming with a reporter while she walks to the kitchen to see what Zeke has created.
“Close your eyes, mom!”
“Okay. They’re closed.” When Amanda opens her eyes, she sees Zeke beaming over a plate of Play-Doh spaghetti and a stack of Play-Doh cookies. This kind of sweet moment reminds Amanda why she hasn’t re-entered the workforce after leaving her job as a high school teacher in spring 2020. Instead, she’s relishing extended time with her three children, all under the age of seven. And she and her husband—who recently moved their family to Fort Wayne, Indiana—are grateful that his income is enough right now. She’s also relieved that she doesn’t have the stress of trying to balance a conventional job with her parenting job. “Because of the uncertainty of COVID-19, it would have been challenging to go back to teaching,” Amanda says. “I can’t imagine what it would have looked like for my kids to be doing home learning and me having to teach virtually.”
Amanda is one of a significant number of women who have not returned to payroll jobs since COVID-19 began disrupting our lives and work nearly two years ago. According to the National Women’s Law Center, female workforce participation has dropped to 57 percent, the lowest level since 1988. Estimates of the number of women who have left the workforce since February 2020 range from 1.8 million to 2.5 million, with black women, senior women and mothers affected the most by job loss, according to “Women in the Workplace,” a recent study by McKinsey. Many didn’t have a choice about leaving, but many are choosing not to go back—at least not any time soon.
This suddenly widened gender gap concerns labor market experts. “There is a real danger that female labor force participation could face its steepest sustained decline since World War II,” write the McKinsey study authors. Fewer women in the workforce mean less diversity at all levels, which not only skews company culture but also hurts the bottom line.
“Study after study shows that companies with a diverse workforce outperform those that lack diversity,” says Lauren Lawley Head, owner of Lawley Head Media, a marketing and content development company. “Gender equity is one piece of a comprehensive approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. This is why it is important for companies that want to remain competitive to focus on establishing a strong employment brand that speaks to the values of today’s emerging leaders.”
This could be a validating time and a turning point for direct selling. As a business opportunity, we have a strong employment brand among women, who account for 75 percent of our distributor base. Women are not as well represented in corporate leadership positions, however, with only about one-quarter to one-third of top roles held by women in our industry globally.
Savvy direct selling companies will take this moment to examine and capitalize on the qualities that have made our business opportunities ideal for many women for decades. Companies whose corporate teams are predominantly male would be wise to reflect on why their cultures and C-suite roles may be excluding women and begin to close that gender gap.
Freedom, Flexibility & Family: Building Our Distributor Base
The pandemic has brought upheaval and uncertainty and has accelerated innovation. It also has given women a chance to clarify their priorities and claim more power over how their lives and work are structured.
Entrepreneurship will be the first choice for many women who are looking for a fresh take on work. In fact, the ranks of female entrepreneurs have been growing steadily for some time.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018, 1.1 million women-owned companies that employed people, and 10.6 million women were self-employed. These numbers have been on a consistent uptick, says Inc. magazine, which reports that in the past two decades, the number of women entrepreneurs has increased by 114 percent.
Maya Rodriguez has been part of this growth. She lost her job as a marketing manager for a national plumbing wholesaler in Cincinnati in April 2020. Soon after, she struck out on her own as a real estate investor, working with people who want their self-directed IRAs out of the stock market. Her new priorities are freedom and self-determination. “I felt very confined by my eight-to-five, Monday-through-Friday, three-weeks-of-vacation schedule,” she said. “I would much rather take a calculated personal risk and do something bigger for myself than build something for someone else who will never share it with me. This is how I knew I was an entrepreneur.”
Fortunately, our industry checks many of the boxes that entrepreneurial women are looking for. We give people the ability to work as much or as little as they want, as well as when they want. And we invest in our independent distributors’ professional and personal development, making us more than just side gigs for those who want to grow their skills and explore their potential. We’ve also become significantly more transparent over the last several years. For example, the vast majority of our companies make it a priority to report legitimate retail customer numbers and to clamp down on misleading statements about income and results potential.
If we want the best of the best to join our teams, we have to expect and welcome women who will hold us accountable to high standards and to practicing what we preach.
Bringing More Women to the C-Suite
Direct selling companies that want to close the gender gap in their corporate offices need to listen to what people like Amanda and Kathleen Hayes are saying about why many traditional jobs don’t cut it anymore.
Insufficient (and unequal) pay is one of the big reasons. Amanda has delayed going back to work altogether because it doesn’t make financial sense right now for her family. “I’d consider substitute teaching, but then nearly all of what I’d make would go to pay for childcare. It’s not worth the effort,” she says. According to the McKinsey report, 40 percent of mothers (compared to 27 percent of fathers) have added three or more hours of caregiving a day to their schedule. That’s 15 or more hours a week, the equivalent of a considerable part-time job.
In addition to not taking work with a paycheck that won’t cover the job’s associated costs, women are being more selective about the kinds of employers they’re willing to work for. For example, Kathleen Hayes lost her job at Northwestern University in spring 2020, just as Chicago was shutting down during the pandemic’s first wave. She wants to return to the workforce and has been applying for full-time jobs, but she’s not willing to work for an organization that doesn’t honor her needs as a single mother to 11-year-old Henry or one that doesn’t share her values.
“What’s off-putting is that so many employers are writing job descriptions with so many responsibilities that it’s evident the person hired is never going to sleep,” Kathleen says. “Employers need to demonstrate an understanding that we are far more productive when we feel like we have the flexibility to take care of our families and ourselves.”
Kate Gardner of C3 Executive Search, which recruits executives for the direct selling industry, agrees that job descriptions are a problem and says it’s also what the descriptions don’t say that is a hindrance to attracting women. “There is no company story, no mention of culture, nothing about the organization and the interview process,” she says. “They say nothing to warm the heart or introduce the candidate to the people with whom they will be working.”
Kathleen, who has a Ph.D. in education, says she also wants to work for an organization with integrity and one that is selective in its partnerships. “Important indicators for me are who funds an education nonprofit that has a job opening I might be interested in, for example, and what I know about that organization’s track record for walking its talk.”
Michele Gay, co-founder and CEO of LimeLife by Alcone understands the need for flexibility firsthand. “I am a working mom. I built a $100 million company in four years while doing laundry, dropping off forgotten cleats and cooking dinner during my ‘work hours.’ I firmly believe that if you give women flexibility they will overperform for you.”
Organizations that adapt to what women are asking for will attract the best women candidates from this nearly unprecedented talent pool.
A Slow Return?
Back at the Purkey household, Amanda mulls another income option. “I’ve had some luck on Facebook Marketplace selling the upcycled home accessories I make. Or I could create a shop for myself in the garage. My husband always tells me, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ But what I want is to be on call for our kids,” she says.
How long will it take for female participation in the labor market to reach pre-pandemic levels? Hard to say, according to some experts. But it may be a while. “Women tend to stick with the decisions they’ve made,” said a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution to NPR in June. “A mother who decided to stay home with her children in the pandemic may end up out of the workforce for years.”
Direct selling has the opportunity to be the choice women make that doesn’t force them to pick between work and family. We can be the preferred option for women who want to take the entrepreneurial plunge and those who want a corporate position that invites them to bring their full power to the table.
Will your company be that choice?
From the October 2021 issue of Direct Selling News magazine.