Do women have an innate predisposition to multitasking?

Although we cannot rule out the idea that there are no gender differences in serial multitasking skills, if there are, they are most likely very subtle. Picture from Pexels

Although we cannot rule out the idea that there are no gender differences in serial multitasking skills, if there are, they are most likely very subtle. Picture from Pexels

Published Sep 21, 2023


Popular gender stereotypes claim that women are more adept at multitasking than males. In reality, many press pieces indicating a female advantage are easily found with a basic Google search.

When researchers used MRI scans to assess brain function, computer tests to evaluate speed of response and an exercise where people walking on a treadmill had to simultaneously complete a cognitive task, they found that women were better multitaskers, says one of my first Google results for “are women genetically coded to multitask”.

Whether it's due to gender stereotypes or anecdotal evidence, the myth that women are better at multitasking than men is fairly common. It claims that males are slower and less organised than women when moving between tasks quickly.

In reality, according to WedMD, 80% of respondents to a 2015 survey titled, “Women Are Better Than Men, Public Beliefs on Gender Differences and Other Aspects in Multitasking”, believed that women were better at multitasking than men.

Being the eldest daughter in a black South African family, I have a hypothesis based on personal experience that claims women have been socially conditioned to only play the roles of mother, wife, and daughter and friend all at once.

I can juggle several pins without blinking thanks to practise, a little self-assurance, a forgiving family and a solid support network, but, to be honest, I hate it.

The question is whether the gender stereotype that women are innate multitaskers is true or not, contrary to what we have previously been told. Previous research on gender and multitasking has produced a wide range of results.

According to the BBC, one study in China indicated that women outperformed men while another in Sweden revealed that males may be more adept at multitasking when it comes to spatial activities than women.

This myth is debunked by new research. Patricia Hirsch and her colleagues from the Institute of Psychology at the German university of Aachen decided to test this myth. Task switching and dual tasking tests were administered to 96 participants (48 men and 48 women) by the researchers.

According to “Medical News Today”, Hirsch and colleagues have published their findings in the journal PLOS One under the title “Putting a Stereotype to the Test: The Case of Gender Differences in Multitasking Costs in Task-Switching and Dual-Task Situations”.

Men and women typically perform similarly when tested on other cognitive skills, according to decades' worth of research. The Harvard Business Review notes that there are a few tasks, however, where men and women consistently outperform one another.

Men often perform better, for example, when envisioning how complex 3-dimensional figures would appear if they were rotated. In turn, women consistently perform better than males in some verbal skills like recalling a list of words or other verbal information.

Despite the media attention given to women's alleged superior multitasking skills, scientific research on sex differences in multitasking abilities has been mixed.

Some studies have revealed no differences while others have found either a male or female advantage.

The practise of performing a number of distinct things in a constrained amount of time is known as multitasking. According to the aforementioned study, multitasking includes a greater cognitive load because it involves a temporal overlap of the cognitive processes needed to complete various activities.

In other words, juggling multiple tasks at once demands greater mental effort than handling them one at a time. In actuality, multitasking causes the human brain to switch between tasks quickly rather than simultaneously, which strains cognitive and attentional resources.

Hirsch and colleagues divided the participants into two groups and gave them each a series of tasks to complete. The participants in the first set of experiments, referred to as “concurrent multitasking” or “dual tasking”, were instructed to focus on two tasks at once.

The participants in the second series of studies, referred to as “sequential multitasking” or “task switching”, had to shift their attention between tasks.

The participants had to use their index and middle fingers to “categorise letters as consonant or vowel and digits as odd or even” for both testing paradigms. The stimuli were placed to the left and right of a fixation point in the centre of the screen by the research team.

These physically matched the keys that participants pressed to sort the letters and numbers into categories.

The stimuli were presented simultaneously in the concurrent multitasking configuration and alternately in the sequential multitasking setup by the researchers.

The researchers evaluated the participants' task accuracy and reaction time throughout the experiments, according to “Medical News Today”.

The findings of the trials showed that multitasking had an equal negative impact on men and women's reaction times and accuracy. Men and women both experienced a significant multitasking penalty on these two tests.

Men and women both performed equally well or poorly when they attempted to multitask across three basic cognitive processes: working memory update, task engagement and disengagement, and inhibition.

Hirsch and her co-authors write in the study's conclusion: “The present findings strongly suggest that there are no substantial gender differences in multitasking performance across task switching and dual task paradigms.“