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Are women better at multitasking than men?

Several studies seem to indicate that women are better at multitasking than men.

I'm always a little leery when I see an article that claims scientists have "proven" something, especially when the evidence is a single test that involved only 50 male and 50 female students. That's the way I felt when I read "Scientists prove that women are better at multitasking than men."

But then I started looking at some other tests that talked about the differences in brain structure (and my own experiences with people who multitask, and those who don't) and I've decided that this may be a true statement after all.

For example, Neurologist Robert Gorski at the University of California confirmed that the corpus callosum (the nerve connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain) is 30 percent more highly developed in the female brain than the male brain. These nerve connections allow information to flow more easily from one side of the brain to the other, which allows a woman to focus on more than one thing at a time.

Now many men, when they read this will be okay with it because they don't look at multitasking as a good thing. To them, when you spread your concentration around, you get less quality in whatever work you're focused on. I can see that. But with today's workforce adding more responsibilities to workers' plates everyday, at what point does the ability to multitask become a preference? When does just getting some crap done override a perfect outcome?

Some men will say they can multitask, and they probably can. And some women can't multitask.  I don't think you can draw the line that clearly between women and men.

Funny aside: One web site I was on that was discussing this topic featured a comment from an earnest teen-aged boy who took issue, saying he could multitask. He could "talk and listen at the same time" or "listen to music and concentrate." That reminds me so much of something my son would say. (For our purposes here, however, let's say "multi" refers to more than two things.)

Now, here comes the part where I get the hate letters: My own experience in several different workplaces seems to indicate to me that women do indeed multitask better than men. I do tend to wait on men to complete duties more than I do women.

What is your experience?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

24 comments
FloCell
FloCell

I work in IT and have come to the conclusion that men are better at multi-tasking in this environment than females. I've been in IT for over 15 years and have worked with males and females as equals and as non-peers. I wonder what kind of test; tasks were presented to the candidates? My wife can multitask certain things that I can't at home and at her workplace simply because I am not familiar with her environment and vice-versa. I believe multitasking is simply tasks that a person can perform due to practice, hence, practice makes better. If people are not interested or unfamiliar with a multitask process then they are doomed to fail whether it be a male or female.

BurningLamp
BurningLamp

I believe that the idea of multitasking is good but confusion about (or rather ignorance on) its meaning, purpose and applicability can be dangerous. I have a colleague at work who decided to give away her Blackberry about a year ago because she almost had an accident when she was chatting on it while driving. She had this belief that she could multitask back then. She was lucky to survive unscathed and went on to get a Nokia (she's back to BB - a gift from her brother - but refuses to use it while driving). We need to be careful when defining and discussing multitasking so as to differentiate between life-threatening and routine or automatic tasks as well as look at the contexts, environments and tools used to perform the many tasks. I think pushing this "multitasking paradigm" might cause some risky behavior in some women (like driving and texting) because of a false sense of super-ability. That said, women are amazing and have wonderful natural abilities suited to their care-giving and other roles. The whole gender-focused comparisons are, in my opinion, tiring and not positively productive. The effects of the controversies stretch beyond the topics at hand and affect how people (men and women) relate with and value (see) each other - which should be based on universal values of mutual honor, respect and love and not physical/psychological abilities and other indices.

damian205
damian205

Doing many things in a mediocre way as none get your full and complete attention. this applies to both men and women. The breakfast example is good as what it really shows is simply good time management. Each individual task takes a given amount of time and while waiting for one thing to complete it is relatively simple to start or complete another. i.e. While waiting for waffles to cook make the coffee. However true multitasking such as watching the road while driving and watching your phone while you write a text is simply beyond any ones ability.

alxbkr
alxbkr

OK If one can say that flying an airplane is a multitasking endeavor then how is it that there are more male pilots?In general do men learn to drive a shift vehicle faster than woman? Why are the majority of expert chefs men? Why are the majority of film directors and editors men? These are multidimensional and multitasking tasks. I don't know.I believe thar every individual is born with a different set of skills and talents and much of what we are not born with we can overcome by training and practice.Are ther still basic differences I am sure there are.Women have their unique skills which are definitely typical of femininity in our culture and vice versa. No one would want that all of us of either gender would all be alike exactly. That's what makes us human and maintains our interest in the opposite sex and our friends in general. The important thing is to accept and love each individuals strengths and weaknesses for the sake of the success of mankind in general.Cooperation,intelligence,modesty,love,avoidance of compulsive acts and cruelty will guarantee our survival.

santeewelding
santeewelding

When you wait more on men than you do women to complete duties, Toni, are you multitasking or are you become cosmic singularity? Get back to me, will you, when you figure out what I am asking.

fletchoid
fletchoid

I am so sick of hearing about how wonderful multitasking is. The usual implication is that the person is doing many things at the same time. Fine if those things are simple and automatic. If each task requires minimal focus, it is easy to stack them up. However, if an error in one of those tasks can have a disastrous effect (eg. driving in heavy traffic while texting your BFF), then multitasking is just stupid. Air traffic controllers do not multitask! They are totally focused on ONE task: keeping multiple planes from crashing. Now, if they decided to text their BFF, while doing this... they should be fired. Having multiple tasks to complete in a specified time does not imply that you should do all of them at once. Setting proper priorities and good time management allow you to accomplish those tasks in a specific time frame. I am also sick to death of hearing how women can multitask so much better than men. Even a man can cook supper, load the dishwasher, watch the kids, feed the dog, and listen to music at the same time. And yes, a woman can focus on ONE important task that requires focus (like Air Traffic controlling), without feeling the need to scatter her attention to other less important things.

dogknees
dogknees

It's fine to say that tests indicate that women are better multi-taskers, and it's fine to say that the structure of women's brains is different. It's not OK to assume that the specific differences in brain structure are the cause of this particular difference in cognition. We don't know anything like enough about the link between physical structure and behaviour to draw such conclusions. Even if it is true, it isn't an excuse for men not to try. We all learn behaviours that are contrary to our "innate" view of the world, why should this be different? The way you are when you're born it where you start, not where you finish. Same as the way you are brought up is where you begin as an adult, not where you end up.

Otto Roth
Otto Roth

Illusion (Magic) is multitasking faster than the audience can multitask! :) And as mentioned, it depends what you do - Playing an Organ (Pipe / Electric) (and singing to your own accompaniment!), Gaming, Rally Driving, etc.

dan
dan

The female always forget that Men have been breathing for years, dosen't that count as one thing to be added to the list when we are doing something else (Had to edit this, Couldn't breath and spell correctly at the same time)

random2010
random2010

.. "I do tend to wait on men to complete duties more than I do women." how do you know this is related to multi-tasking? This observation seems to be more closely related to time management, of which multi-tasking is only one aspect. Besides, according to a lot of guff in circulation, us men are constantly multi-tasking. Apparently we have to stop what we are doing and think about s*x several times a minute.

renjigeorge
renjigeorge

Just for GAGs.....Pun Only....Neurologist Robert Gorski at the University of California confirmed that the corpus callosum (the nerve connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain) is 30 percent more highly developed in the female brain than the male brain. --- But there is no confirmation that they can use it ... What a waste...

Snak
Snak

.... the statement is entirely true. And for very good reason. Back in the day when humanity was developing, the male would hunt and the female would look after the home (we're talking cave here, or perhaps rudimentary hut). In fact the males would work together stalking, trapping and killing the dinner and the females would work together looking after the children (of which there had to be many as few would survive), whilst foraging and home-keeping chores. Men needed to focus on the hunt in order not to become the hunted and therefore can hold a map in their heads and concentrate, focus on the objective (this also explains why Man Flu is real phenomena - without concentration, the sabre tooth ate and man didn't, so a man flu really does lay him out - a survival thing). Women on the other hand needed their attention in several places at the same time - hence the multi-tasking. Whether this is actually true multi-tasking or a very sophisticated time-slicing is open to experiment perhaps.

albie25
albie25

When I ever I see women multi tasking, it tends to be while they are driving a car........GRRRREEEEAT!

Otto Roth
Otto Roth

Women cannot have an Headache and have sex at the same time! Case Closed!

RockerGeek!
RockerGeek!

I think this should have had more participants. Men and women of varying ages from varying walks of life (career, stay at home parent, school/work, etc) Then I would think the results would be a little more... appealing.

seanferd
seanferd

I'm always a little leery when I see an article that claims scientists have "proven" something "Proven" isn't really a scientific concept. "Evidence for" would be the scientific equivalent. I certainly hope the paper doesn't read like the news article. They usually don't. There is evidence that women tend to be better at multitasking, and that men tend to be better at extreme focus for long periods of time. But thanks to things like genetic and developmental variation, as well as training and practice, studies like this are possibly informative, but not something to "live by". And yes, studies where college students are the sample population from which a small sample is selected are not terribly significant, but may provide interesting results indicating that replication, especially with larger samples from more diverse populations, is warranted. edit: To remove horrific multiple ??? from quote and replace with actual punctuation. (Are TR articles moving from HTML to MS Word doc(x) format?)

codepoke
codepoke

If I'm talking on the phone and looking at an email, one of my conversants is being other-tasked. I'll either need either to fully reread the email or ask the caller to repeat everything they said (and maybe much of what I said too!) As a male, I'm pretty much a poster child for this assertion. The evidence was tattooed on my son's head when I Mr. Mom'd for 6 months. He repeatedly fell down our couple concrete stairs while I was distracted. Mothers never get distracted. They keep equal parts of attention on children, tasks, neighbors, and the newscast and keep the whole furball from falling apart. I tried, and could not do it. The money from this research would come if they could legitimize giving deeper problems to non-multitaskers and more problems to multitaskers (whomever they might be), and use our different wiring to our mutual advantages.

robo_dev
robo_dev

What was the question again? :)

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

I forget exactly which of the elite colleges did the study on multi-tasking (on all persons and not male vs female) but what I do remember very clearly is they showed that multi-tasking is a myth. We as humans do not actually multi-task when it comes to non-automatic actions. I use that qualifier because someone will say something to the effect of ???we can walk and breathe at the same time and that???s multi-tasking???. Our bodies can multi-task when it comes to the automatic processes we perform, those things we do without actively thinking about them. However when it comes to non-automatic actions like typing a reply on one subject and thinking about am entirely different/ separate issues we do not multitask. Some people can switch very quickly between 2 or more actions providing the illusion that they are multitasking but in fact they are not truly multi-tasking. This difference between switching very quickly and repeatedly between multiple actions and true multitasking may seem trivial but it???s not. As for the ability to switch quickly and repeatedly between 2 or more tasks there are those who are much better at this than others. Some people can do this rapid switching and provide acceptable to excellent results while some cannot; it all depends on the individual and tasks being performed and not the gender of the individual. I would say that the primarily male dominated world of online gaming proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that males can very quickly switch between multiple tasks and just as effectively as women. It???s all based on what the tasks are and the individual and not the gender. This sound smore like something designed to further drive a wedge between men & women and to make them more competitive with each other and in a bad way.

unellen
unellen

This may sound a bit anti-feminist, but I was working in the kitchen making Sunday morning breakfast, getting ready to make baked beans for dinner, putting my plants out for hardening, and checking my e-mail. All without burning said breakfast and getting it all done at the specific time I was aiming for. (waffles and omelets) It occurred to me that doing something like that was hard wired into me to be able to do, though it did take a lot of practice to get there. Don't know if that's a female thing or not, but since I am female, and I saw this, I thought I might mention it.

atkinsonphillip
atkinsonphillip

Now you don't see anything starting like that any more. It would be called sexism. Everywhere i turn it's "Woman are better than men at........:We are different and that's not a bad thing, but too much of this stuff smells suspiciously sexist. There's no doubt woman got it rough and I'm delighted with modern equality, but I'm sick to death of how any tripe can be written parading the virtues of woman; yet you never hear anything that start with "Men are better than woman at..........." It would be howled down as sexist. The truth is; there are as many intra gender differences as inter. But if you want to push the line that woman are better at men at, well everything, then consider this. At the prodigious end of everything -it is male; mathematicians, chefs, authors, astronomers, engineers, physicists, IT scientists, drummers, guitarists, playwrights, philosophers - to name a few. Then there is the superior spatial skills that means prodigious driving, riding, flying and stunting is all male. It's time woman stopped yapping and started looking at what is before them - and learning from us. That being said; I love my mother, my sister and my girlfriend - but we are different and it makes life interesting.

dogknees
dogknees

Men are (apparently) always thinking about sex, so we're already doing two things at once at all times. How much do they want?!

JHammell
JHammell

My wife constantly gets frustrated with me because I don't multi-task very well. All semantics regarding the word 'multitasking' aside, If I put the effort in I can multi-task, but it is inconsistent and I have to put the effort in. When I'm at home my wife is always accusing me of purposefully not listening to her and registering what she is saying, but this is not true. Granted, I need to be better disciplined at focusing on what she has to say and processing it so it does not fall out the other ear, as it often does, but I am not putting a conscious effort in to *not* listen to her and registering her words so I can recall and act on them later. I had heard years ago that men are better at focusing on one task at a time then women (this is the flip side of being a good multitasker and having a highly active brain as women do), but that we, men, were not as good at multitasking as women. Part of the supporting evidence of this was that when men and women's brains were scanned the men had very little activity focused in one area of the brain (which seemed to suggest focus and clear headedness - no jokes about men being brain-dead thank you ;-P) whereas the women's brains were lit up heavily all over the place (the polar opposite of men's brains). Unfortunately, I have yet to find this information readily available online and therefore have not been able to produce it as evidence to my wife who claims I am 'special' and defective and no other men experience the problems I do, according to her. So, until further notice, I will be riding the 'short bus' to work and watching the squirrels to entertain my simple mind.

brucemandate
brucemandate

I started cooking at a younger age than my sister(she's 3 years younger). I have watched her burn food much more than myself. I think she places less importance on cooking since she cooks for others out of necessity and sees it as more of a chore. Interestingly, she is a very good cook, but I believe the chore nature of it has an affect on attitude, hence focus at times. I cook simulateous to accomplishing many other tasks, and I burn things sporadically; however, I think I enjoy it more due to not having to cook for others. That is there is less focus in outcome, and the results flow easier.