During hard economic times, one industry remains impressively robust: direct selling. Door-to-door sales exploded during the Depression, and since then, women (and men, but mostly women) have been peddling Tupperware and Mary Kay cosmetics to friends and neighbors in ever-growing numbers. By last count, 62 million sellers around the world brought in $114 billion, more than the GDP of Bangladesh.
The image of the direct seller might seem quintessentially American: The salesman hustle is, after all, considered part of Americans' DNA. But in other parts of the world, direct selling is helping women (and men, but mostly women) survive when other work -- the kind with cubicles and salaries -- eludes their grasp.
There are officially 100,000 direct sellers in Ecuador, although Erynn Casanova, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, who wrote a book on the subject, "Making Up the Difference," believes the true number is more than double that.
Women are excluded from Ecuador's formal labor market for multiple reasons. Household chores and childcare make rigid full-time work an impossibility for many, and limited jobs in general, and part-time jobs in particular, keep these women out of the workplace.
Discrimination based on sex, age and appearance compounds the struggle, according to Casanova. Photographs are usually required with resumes in Ecuador, and a woman has little recourse if her smiling face fails to please the man-in-charge.
So more and more women, from teenagers to 70-somethings, are scraping together some capital, buying discounted products from organizations like Yanbal International, the largest direct selling corporation in the country, and selling them at a profit to family and friends -- and working outward, if they're good, to the friends of family of friends of friends.
Officially, only women can be Yanbal "beauty consultants." The company sees itself as a for-profit company with a feminist bent. It tries "to offer the Latino woman the opportunity of developing herself, making all of her dreams and goals a reality."
According to Yanbal's website, company founder J. Fernando Belmont "made women the heart and soul of the company."
Belmont's lofty prose in grounded in truth. As much research shows, when women have a source of income, their bargaining power in the household rises.
In Casanova's chapter "embodying professionalism," she describes how many Yanbal beauty consultants dress up for a job, on company suggestion.
"It's a way to visually and symbolically distinguish themselves from other kinds of informal sellers," Casanova tells AOL Jobs. The kind of informal sellers that hawk food and knickknacks at street markets.
Casanova assumed that the selling aspect would be the keystone of her book. How women work networks, and persuade customers "to buy things they can't afford." Turns out, there isn't a lot of persuasion involved. The real drama comes when the women go to collect the cash.
Yanbal products are usually sold on an installment plan, and the sellers have to negotiate slippery debtors and late payments, figuring out who should be given more time, and who shouldn't be trusted.
One beautysold three sisters an exorbitant amount of products with little money down. All of the sisters ended up defaulting on their payments.
The sellers "don't usually get burned like that twice," says Casanova.
When asked whether a cosmetics trade, which pushes women to part with their disposable income in the name of beauty, is truly empowering, Casanova is quick to defend it. Over half the customers are male, she says. And one should be careful not to "pathologize" women's "consumption styles."
"In a society that's very stratified by social class, in which people are judged by what they look like, we have to see that people's choices are constrained," she says. "Beauty products are one way [these women] can move up or be accepted by society."
It's about self-expression too, she says. And creativity. And pleasure.
But Yanbal's beauty consultants are disempowered in another respect. Despite a full week of work, most of these women nevertheless bear the brunt of domestic chores and childcare. And if their husbands' don't approve of their day job and independent livelihood, their lives are all the harder.
So do direct sales change the terms of gender equality?
"Not necessarily," Casanova concludes. "It doesn't change the larger structures."
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