Are women better at multitasking than men?

Dear Cecil:

All the women I know take it as gospel that females are better multitaskers, implying they get more done than men. In my experience working with women, they're at best only equally productive as the guys. More commonly, they're doing two jobs at once, each at about 40 percent efficiency. Adding insult to injury, invariably one of those "jobs" is talking on the phone. So help settle this battle of the sexes — do women multitask more often and more effectively than men? Are females more productive or is the whole thing a scam to justify gabbing with their friends instead of doing their fair share of the work?

Cecil replies:

I detect some attitude here, Scott, so tell me which is better: a woman operating at 40 percent effectiveness while talking on the phone, or her male counterparts making zero percent progress while rehashing last night’s game?

It’s not just women who think they excel at multitasking. A lot of men agree — for example, me, based on close observation of Ms. Adams. While I’m doggedly drilling into the history of two-by-fours or some other crucial subject, she’s doing laundry, taping up care packages for the little researchers away at college, and reorganizing a client’s finance department.

Is she good at this? Yes. Is she innately good at it? That’s not so clear. On the contrary, I have to think if it were all that effortless she’d be less inclined to bitch about how I’m not holding up my end. Hoping to get to the bottom of this, we turn as usual to science and find the usual jumble of conflicting data. Let’s see if with a little manly singleness of purpose we can get things sorted out:

1. No one disputes that men and women have genuine cognitive differences. Tests show that, generally speaking, men have superior spatial orientation (navigational) skills, while women are better at “object-location memory,” that is, remembering landmarks. A leading explanation for this in the academic journals is that in primitive times male hunters needed to be able to find their way on long trips in search of game, while female foragers needed to be able to recall good spots to gather food.

2. The popular assumption, happily perpetuated in the media, is that women are inherently better at multitasking than men, and the hunters-vs.-foragers theory has been customized accordingly: here the claim is that males had to focus single-mindedly on bagging their quarry, while females did their foraging while simultaneously minding the kids and watching out for threats. However, there’s little research to back this up, and what there is frankly sucks. Two of the more widely cited papers on this question were written by undergraduates.

3. What we do know is that women multitask much more often than men. A study of 500 mostly affluent two-income families found that both parents spent a lot of time multitasking, but the women multitasked more, 48 hours per week vs. 39 for the men. Unsurprisingly, the women’s multitasking mostly involved housework and childcare.

4. A distinction must be drawn between alternating between tasks, or task switching, and performing two tasks simultaneously, which I’ll call simultasking. A sizable body of research suggests that trying to perform two intellectually demanding chores at the same time is a sure way to do one or both of them poorly, the prime example being talking on your phone while driving a car.

5. A lot of the cognitive research on sex differences in multitasking, unfortunately, has fixated on simultasking. The results have been all over the place — some showing that men do better, some women, some neither. Few of the studies I’ve seen compare the results of simultasking against a control group of unitaskers, that is, people doing just one thing. My guess is that, for intellectually demanding work, unitaskers do way better than simultaskers of either sex.

6. Research and common sense suggest that the only way to do two tasks competently at the same time is to make sure at least one of them requires minimal brainpower, for example folding laundry while on the phone. A reasonable surmise is that women’s reputation as superior multitaskers stems partly from the fact that they’re disproportionately burdened with mindless household chores that can readily be done simultaneously.

7. As for task switching, one recent study (Buser and Peter, 2011) compared the performance of men and women alternating between two relatively demanding tasks, namely solving sudoku and word-search puzzles. The researchers found no significant difference between the two sexes.

Putting all this together, Scott, we formulate the following two-part hypothesis. First, women multitask more not because they’re naturally better at it but because the need to juggle work and family compels them to. Second, the myth of an innate female gift for multitasking serves two socially useful purposes: it enables women to rationalize having gotten stuck with the scutwork, while for you it’s an excuse to avoid helping out.

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