Are women better multi-taskers?
Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the best multi-tasker of us all? Oh hang on, I dropped my mobile...
It's a common belief that women are better at multi-tasking than men. After all, productivity studies show that women continue to do the lion's share of household and childcare tasks, while also holding down part- or full-time work.
So this must mean women are better multi-taskers, right? Not necessarily.
For a topic that causes so much heat in the kitchen, there's surprisingly little scientific evidence to declare a clear winner.
All of us may be rubbish at juggling more than two tasks, suggests Dr Etienne Koechlin, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research.
"If we exclude innate tasks such as walking or over-learned sensory-motor tasks such as drumming, humans cannot perform two tasks at once: one task is always put on hold, while the other is performed and vice versa," says Koechlin.
Last year Koechlin's team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to test the brain activity of 32 people, 16 men and 16 women, while they performed two simple letter matching tests.
Their research, published in Science suggests that both hemispheres of the brain's medial frontal cortex acts like a tag-team, switching between tasks.
They uncovered no difference between men and women. Despite this finding, however, Koechlin believes the belief that women may be better at multi-tasking "has some real roots."
"A possible hypothesis is that women tend to equate priorities, while men tend to more hierarchise priorities when facing multiple tasks," he says.
Women win by planning
Planning and strategy is the key to women's success, says Professor Keith Laws from the UK's University of Hertfordshire who believes women are better at multitasking.
Last year, Laws studied a group of 50 men and 50 women as part of a series of research.
The participants were challenged to complete a range of 'real life' tasks - find restaurants on a map, solve simple arithmetic and draw a plan to find a lost key while they were simultaneously interrupted by telephone calls.
The men and women performed equally well on the maths and map reading tasks - tasks normally deemed to be male strengths - and answering the phone. But 70 per cent of the women outshone the men in the 'lost key' task.
"The women have a much better planning and strategy for finding the key. The men tend to jump to into it and be far less organised and thorough. It's as if they don't stop to reflect and plan for a moment."
But while the ability to develop strategies for coping with the multiple tasks in the everyday life could give women an edge, "nobody can juggle two, never mind three, 'complex' tasks at the same time," he says.
Likewise, the notion that women tend to do lots of tasks badly while men are better at uni-tasking - concentrating and performing one task really well - is a myth, adds Laws.
As part of a bigger research project Laws also plans to see whether training can improve multi-tasking, whether certain professions are better than others, and how accurate people are at rating their multi-tasking abilities.
Results so far show that "people are not very accurate at self-rating their multi-tasking abilities", he says.
Whether we underrate or overrate our abilities to multi-task, we certainly believe we are doing more of it in the home.
Productivity in the home
Gigi Foster from the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales is studying the impact of multi-tasking on productivity in the home, particularly childcare.
An analysis of Australian time use data by Foster and colleague Charlene Kalenkoski from Ohio University shows a steep rise in multitasked childcare reported by both genders and a decline in sole-tasked care in the ten years between 1997 and 2006.
But interestingly, the more a mum reports feeling rushed and juggling multiple tasks, the better their children perform in surveys assessing child development outcomes.
"Mothers who feel they are better at multi-tasking their children score better on these outcomes and for fathers that is certainly not the case," says Foster.
To get more solid data about the relationship between multi-tasking and household productivity the researchers designed a pilot study to mimic a real-life situation.
They asked 14 undergraduates, seven men and seven women to perform a computer simulation where they had to keep a baby placated while sorting a never-ending basket of laundry.
While the study was too small to see any differences between gender, one thing was clear.
"We certainly found that people were less productive multi-tasking than sole tasking," she says.
Further studies are planned to begin later this year that will not only test productivity sacrifices but also whether people's perceptions match reality, and whether experience makes any difference.
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