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Laura Vanderkam

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On Not Doing Dishes: The Rise of the Core Competency Mom

Posted: 05/26/08 07:03 PM ET

"My kids come first," the smiling woman in the television ad says. Images of her and other moms playing with their children flash across the screen as inspirational music plays. It's the kind of ad that celebrates modern motherhood, family, and is selling -- of all things -- Dixie disposable plates.

The link? Dixie disposable dishes can be tossed after meals, eliminating the need to rinse plates, stick them in the dishwasher or scrub them by hand. The less time the TV mom has to spend washing dishes, she reports, the more time she can spend with her kids.

It's not an environmentally friendly message, but no matter. Dixie is going for a much deeper part of the cultural zeitgeist -- a change in the way women think about their time, their families, and housework. Like corporations focused on their essential functions, or "core competencies," modern moms -- particularly those who work full-time -- are stripping the traditional "mom" job description of the tangential chores it's long encompassed. Washing dishes is out. So are most other things that can be outsourced or ignored. This phenomenon is changing the way our economy and our families function. But at the same time, by enabling the reallocation of time away from low-value activities, the rise of what I call the "Core Competency Mom" has created a fascinating paradox. Since the 1960's, women's labor force participation has risen by about 50%. Yet today's mothers spend more time with their children than mothers did in 1965. In companies and the household, it turns out, everyone wins when you focus on the few things you do best.

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As the mom of a young son, I know that having a kid and having a job induces you to look at time differently, but I started investigating the phenomenon of Core Competency Moms in earnest when I came across an interesting statistic from the American Time Use Survey not long ago. This annual Bureau of Labor Statistics study asks Americans to account for how they actually clock their days. The answers reveal that many of our assumptions about how women allocate their time are wrong.

Picture two married mothers, both of whose youngest child is under age six. One works outside the home full-time, one is a full-time homemaker. How much more time, Monday through Friday, would you imagine that the stay-at-home mom spends taking care of her kids than the working mom?

Would you imagine five hours a day, eight hours a day or more?

Would you believe it's just over an hour and a half per day, or eight hours over the entire workweek?

It seems improbable, but it's true. Even though moms who work full-time spend, by definition, at least 35 more hours per week at paid jobs than stay-at-home moms, they spend just 8 hours less taking care of their kids - time that can be, and often is, made up on the weekends.

Tracking how working moms conjure up those additional hours requires hunting through many other lines of statistics, but a few key principles emerge. Moms who are in the workforce sleep about an hour less per night than stay-at-home moms. They watch less TV. Stay-at-home moms also don't spend nearly as much time interacting with their children as people imagine. Between preschool and other activities, kids these days have their own schedules long before they did in past years. Moms who are not in the workforce sometimes take on other commitments (such as volunteering) which cut down on the number of hours available to spend with their kids. Kids also nap.

But there's another component, one the folks at Dixie are picking up on. Stay-at-home moms spend about three-and-a-half hours per weekday on household activities (largely cleaning and food preparation), which is about as much time as they spend taking care of their kids as a primary activity. Moms who work full-time are more likely to see these two activities as direct trade-offs. Time spent washing dishes is time not spent playing. Hence the appeal of the disposable plates. Indeed, moms who work full-time manage to spend at least two hours less per workday on housework than moms who are not in the workforce. This is a big enough shift to change the proportions of how women spend their days. Stay-at-home moms spend an equal amount of time taking care of their kids and their houses; moms who work full-time spend more time with their kids than on household chores.

This makes sense. When any resource is limited, economic efficiency calls for allocating it to its highest-value uses. For working moms, this precious resource is time. There is little point in spending time doing things other people can do just as well or better. It's far better to focus on what only you can do, and what you do best. For working mothers, these core competencies tend to be their paid work and taking care of their kids. Because women make this choice, they free up enough space to allocate time to both jobs. As women on the whole have started focusing on their core competencies, this has speeded the introduction of labor saving products (such as Dixie plates) into the market, and changed the standard of acceptable housework. No one dusts daily anymore. But the economy has benefited from women's talents being increasingly leveraged in the workforce. And women, on the whole, are spending more time with their kids than they did 40 years ago.

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I like calling this phenomenon the rise of the "Core Competency Mom" because it tracks what's going on in the larger economic sphere.

The phrase "core competency" was first put forth by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad in a 1990 article in the Harvard Business Review. The authors defined these attributes as things that provide customer benefits, and that competitors have a hard time imitating. In general, businesses win when they outsource activities that are not part of their core competencies to other firms that can do these things better.

Over the past two decades, big companies have taken this message to heart. Few corporations hire their own cafeteria staff anymore. Instead, they outsource this function to food service providers such as Sodexo. They do not film their own commercials or administer their own insurance plans. If they are in the search engine business, they do not, as a general rule, try to manufacture appliances as well.

People can have core competencies too. Many of us have had to learn this in the business world. Management gurus stress that in this era of lay-offs and globalization, it's important to be Brand You. So moms and others have dutifully tried to figure out what we do best at work. Over the next few weeks I'll be blogging about how this Core Competency concept can play out in the career space.

But we haven't spent nearly as much time pondering our core competencies at home -- the sphere I'll be blogging about first. Doing dishes probably does not fall into this category. There is no inherent reason that a mom needs to do dishes, and so disposable dishes promise to take that chore off your plate (as do, to some extent, pre-made meals or the ever-popular one pot meals). The same goes for laundry services, which I'll also be writing about, grocery shopping (hello FreshDirect!), professional organizing, concierge services and so forth.

On the other hand, assuring a worried kid that he can in fact make friends in his new school - and helping him develop strategies to do so -- is a mom core competency. No one else can do it better. Showing a kid that faith is important by praying together is also a core competency. So is eating a relaxed dinner as a family -- rather than racing to wash heaping piles of dishes. Going on a hike with your teenage children on a Saturday is a better way to show you care than washing their jeans.

When moms focus on their core competencies -- nurturing their families and their paid work -- they keep their children from suffering the ill-effects that pundits predicted would follow the movement of women into the paid workforce. Over the next few weeks I'll be blogging about the various ways families -- like corporations -- have started outsourcing non-essential functions, and how Core Competency moms are re-shaping the world of work. They're also remaking our entire economy and social system, to the point where even disposable plate ads stress not the toughness, but the lifestyle. "It is our mission to make your day a little easier, giving you more time to focus on what's really important," the Dixie website says. Freed from unnecessary domestic burdens, women become better moms. It's a different way of looking at things, but one that's becoming so widespread even disposable plates seem wholesome.

 
 
 

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