The Stereotype That Women Are Better Multitaskers Than Men Might Be a Lie

Sex differences in the ability to multitask may not be what we think.

laptop paper

It’s an age-old conundrum: Are women really better at multitasking than men? Women have traditionally had to juggle kids and the household in addition to working and managing family relationships, while the breadwinning tasks of men have generally been more singular. But studies on the stereotype over the past few decades have struggled to find evidence that any gender-based divide actually exists. A new study in PLOS One is the latest to join the list.

Led by psychology researcher Patricia Hirsch, Ph.D., of Aachen University, the study shows that women and men are equally bad at multitasking, despite what the traditional tasks of either gender suggest.

This conclusion, of course, was totally contingent on how the ability to multitask was measured. Previous studies — and there are so many — have had different takeaways because multitasking can be assessed in so many different ways.

Women and Men Performed Equally in This Test

Hirsch’s study had 48 men and 48 women complete letter and number identification tasks, sometimes sequentially (switching quickly from one task to another) and sometimes concurrently (doing the tasks at the same time). Sequential multitasking is what we do when we answer work emails, texts, Slack messages, and tweets in rapid succession, one after another. Concurrent multitasking is what we do when we cook dinner while talking on the phone with a friend.

The tasks involved in this experiment were a little more abstract: They involved categorizing “letters as consonant or vowel and digits as odd or even using the index and middle fingers of the hand spatially corresponding to the stimulus presentation location.”

multitasking
Sequential multitasking refers to switching between multiple tasks at once, like emailing, Slacking, being on Twitter, and checking Instagram one after the other.

To measure whether a person actually did the task well, the team looked at accuracy and reaction time, noting how much each person’s performance suffered when they had to do tasks sequentially or simultaneously.

For both men and women, both sequential multitasking and concurrent multitasking took an equal toll on speed and accuracy.

Ultimately, their results showed “not a single significant gender difference” across the metrics and conditions they studied.

What Is Multitasking, Anyway?

Multitasking is a messy field, and the team admits that no single experiment can capture every aspect of the ability, from the various cognitive functions underlying it to the range of tasks it can involve.

They try to make their experiments stand out from those done in past studies by specifically comparing gender differences in sequential and simultaneous multitasking. Previous studies have only focused on one type, but the authors point out that these tasks are different enough that they may account for the varying conclusions of previous studies. For example, they say there is previous evidence for “better sequential multitasking performance in women than in men.” Concurrent multitasking has shown more mixed results.

But studying multitasking is even more complicated than that. In 2018, researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the inconsistency in what we know about multitasking gender differences may have to do with the fact that the tasks that participants do in these experiments are nothing at all like the stuff a person would do in real life. How often do you use your fingers to categorize vowels and consonants?

Those scientists developed a computer game that better approximated real life: Players had to prepare a room for a business meeting while at the same time fielding distractions, like phone calls and missing chairs, and thinking about things that had to be done in the future, like setting out the coffee. In the Psychological Research study that involved this test, there were no sex differences.

“However,” they pointed out, “there is still too little data available to conclude if, and in which multitasking paradigms, gender differences arise.”

pigeons
Depending on how multitasking tests are designed, the conclusions can vary widely. One study showed that pigeons are better at it than humans.

In The Conversation, yet another set of researchers pointed out in 2017 that women are “less affected by interference when carrying out certain tasks than men, and hormones may play a part in this discrepancy.” In their Royal Society Open Science study, they showed that estrogen in women makes them better at multitasking than men — but only if your idea of multitasking is doing the Stroop task and swinging your arms while walking.

Silly as that study might seem, it brings the spotlight to the big idea underlying multitasking studies: If women and men differ in their multitasking ability, does it come down to a fundamental biological difference between the sexes?

For now, answering that question depends on our ability to assess multitasking, which remains mixed at best. It has suggested, however, that maybe we should focus less on gender differences and more on those between species: A 2017 Current Biology paper showed that when it comes to the ability to multitask, humans pale in comparison to pigeons.

Abstract:

According to a popular stereotype, women are better at multitasking than men, but empirical evidence for gender differences in multitasking performance is mixed. Previous work has focused on specific aspects of multitasking or has not considered gender differences in abilities contributing to multitasking performance. We therefore tested gender differences (N = 96, 50% female) in sequential (i.e., task switching) and concurrent (i.e., dual tasking) multitasking, while controlling for possible gender differences in working memory, processing speed, spatial abilities, and fluid intelligence. Applying two standard experimental paradigms allowed us to test multitasking abilities across five different empirical indices (i.e., performance costs) for both reaction time (RT) and accuracy measures, respectively. Multitasking resulted in substantial performance costs across all experimental conditions without a single significant gender difference in any of these ten measures, even when controlling for gender differences in underlying cognitive abilities. Thus, our results do not confirm the widespread stereotype that women are better at multitasking than men at least in the popular sequential and concurrent multitasking settings used in the present study.