It’s popularly and widely believed that women are better at multitasking than men. But is that gender stereotype true?
No, according to a German study published this month in the journal PLOS One. The study did find some gender differences: Women tend to process information a bit faster and men are somewhat better at tasks involving spatial relations. But neither women nor men were any better at switching back and forth between tasks or performing two tasks simultaneously.
For the study, a team of researchers led by psychologist Patricia Hirsch of Aachem University recruited 48 men and 48 women from two German universities. The men and women selected were similar in terms of their age (the average age for both groups was 24) and their physical and mental profiles.
Before the multitasking part of the study began, the participants were put through a variety of cognitive tests to see if they differed by gender in ways that other studies have found can influence people’s ability to multitask. The men and women scored comparably on an intelligence test, as well as on a test that assessed working (short-term) memory.
The only cognitive differences between the two groups was that “women showed a faster processing speed compared to men, whereas men demonstrated better spatial abilities than women,” the study reports.
Two types of multitasking
With those assessments out of the way, the participants were given a series of letter and number identification tasks specially designed to test two type of multitasking. In one series of tests they had to pay attention to two tasks at once (called concurrent multitasking), while in another series they had to switch their attention between two tasks (called sequential multitasking).
Both forms of multitasking put greater cognitive demand on the brain, “leading to a temporal overlap of the cognitive process in performing these tasks,” the researchers explain.
Each participant’s reaction time and accuracy were measured during the multitasking tests and then compared to how each did in a control situation (when they were asked to perform a single task).
The study found that both men and women were slower and less accurate when multitasking, but no difference was found in either speed or accuracy between the two genders.
When the researchers adjusted the data to account for the gender differences in processing speed and spatial abilities, the results were the same.
A few caveats
The study involved a relatively small number of people, and all of them were young adults living in Germany. The findings might be different if a larger, more diverse group of people were tested.
In addition, specific types of multitasking tests were used in the study. Other types of tests might have led to different results. Indeed, the authors point out that the mixed results from previous research on this topic may reflect differences in the tests used.
Still, as Leah Ruppaner, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne who was not involved in the study, points out in an article for The Conversation, these new findings build “on an existing body of research showing human brains cannot manage multiple activities at once. Particularly when two tasks are similar, they compete to use the same part of the brain, which makes multitasking very difficult.”
But the study’s findings are particularly noteworthy, she stresses, because they help to shatter the myth that women are better at multitasking.
“Using robust data to challenge these sorts of myths is important,” Ruppaner says, “especially given that women continue to be bombarded with work, family and household tasks.”
Expected to ‘do it all’
“The multitasking myth means mothers are expected to ‘do it all,’” she adds. “But this obligation can affect women’s mental health, as well as their capacity to excel at work.” To support this claim, Ruppaner points to her own research:
We found the birth of a child increases parents’ reports of feeling rushed or pressed for time, but the effect is twice the size for mothers than it is for fathers. Second children double mothers’ time pressure again and, as a consequence, lead to a deterioration in their mental health.
Women are also more likely to drop out of paid work when children are born or family demands intensify. They carry a larger mental load tied to organising the needs of the family — who has clean socks, who needs to be picked up from school, whether there is enough Vegemite for lunch. All of this labour is at the expense of time planning for the next day’s work, the next promotion, and so on.
Women are also asked to multitask family demands at night. Children are more likely to interrupt their mother’s than their father’s sleep.
“Public opinion persists that women have a biological edge as super-efficient multitaskers,” Ruppaner adds. “But, as [new German] study shows, this myth is not supported by evidence.
“This means the extra family work women perform is just that – extra work. And we need to see it as such,” she says.