The positive stereotype that women are innately good at juggling a million things at once can sometimes feel like more of a burden.
There are some things that women are simply expected to be good at. Caring for children, for example. Keeping a house reasonably tidy. Being empathetic and collaborative. These are all positive skills, and they’re not inherently feminine. Yet women often face more judgement for not displaying them than men.
One of the most pervasive positive stereotypes about women is that we’re all naturally brilliant multitaskers. We’ve spoken before about the myth of the modern superwoman, the make-believe high-flying professional who’s able to juggle motherhood, work, friends and romance without so much as breaking a sweat. Even if you don’t personally aspire to spinning a million different plates in the air, there’s a generic assumption that women are better than men at doing several things at once.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m a woman, and I’m s**t at multi-tasking. I can’t hop nimbly between tasks; I have to work through my to-do lists methodically instead. If I’m writing or editing an article, nothing throws me off balance like suddenly having to answer an email or speak to a colleague – and outside of the office, I can barely even text and talk at the same time. I can just about cook dinner while holding a conversation, but that’s about it.
But over the years, the stereotype that women are better than men at multitasking has seemingly been backed up by science. One study from 2013 found that men were slower and less organised than women when switching between tasks on a computer, while research published last year showed that men’s walking patterns changed when they were required to complete a cognitive test at the same time.
However, according to new research, there’s actually no significant difference in men and women’s multitasking skills. Psychologists and neuroscientists at the University of Bergen in Norway recruited 66 women and 82 men aged between 18 and 60 for their study, which they set up to investigate the relationship between gender and ‘serial multitasking’ abilities.
Serial multitasking is the kind of multitasking that we do most often, according to the researchers. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they describe it as the ability to switch rapidly between tasks, such as preparing for a meeting while simultaneously answering emails, being interrupted by a colleague and checking Twitter. (Concurrent multitasking, in contrast, is the art of doing two things at once, such as talking on your phone while driving.)
Participants in the study were asked to carry out a computerised simulation designed to replicate the kind of serial multitasking most of us do regularly in the workplace. In the simulation, they were required to get a room ready for a meeting while also dealing with distractions including a missing chair and an unexpected phone call. They also had to remember to carry out certain tasks in future, such as giving an object to a virtual colleague, or putting the coffee on the meeting table at a specific time.
Overall, the researchers found no notable difference in men and women’s serial multitasking skills. “We cannot exclude the possibility that there are no sex differences in serial multitasking abilities, but if they do exist, such differences are likely to be very small,” they write.
But if that’s the case, why have previous studies found that women are better at multitasking? The Norwegian team believes this is due to the fact that much of the research into the subject so far has relied on simplistic experiments that don’t actually reflect the kind of multitasking we do most often.
“One reason for these inconsistent findings may be that, to date, the vast majority of studies have examined gender differences using artificial laboratory tasks that do not match with the complex and challenging multitasking activities of everyday life,” they say.
As I read the results of this study, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Positive clichés about women being naturally more organised, empathetic or moral than men can be used to box us in just as much as negative stereotypes – and I’ve long suspected that women’s supposed aptitude for multitasking is simply an excuse to lumber us with more responsibilities. In contrast, men (who famously ‘can’t multitask’) are given leeway to focus on one job at a time.
So, three cheers for evidence that having two X chromosomes doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to be a good multitasker. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I’m off to do all the things I didn’t do while writing this article.
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