Are women better multi-taskers than men?

13 June 2017

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Question

Is it actually true that women are better at multitasking than men? Is it possible to improve your multitasking ability?

Answer

Duncan Astle gets to the bottom of this... 

Duncan - The bottom line really with any kind of cognitive task is the more you practice it, the better you get. I see no reason that would be different with multitasking. You can train it, people will get better at multitasking.

Whenever I give a talk people often ask about gender differences. In any of our datasets we tend to find that there are very, very few gender differences and, as far as I know, there are no gender differences in multitasking.

Chris - Where does this idea come from because it’s very pervasive - it’s commonly said?

Duncan - There are all sorts of gender stereotypes that are incredibly pervasive. In 2014 there was a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where they scanned the brains of 500 men and 500 women. They used a type of science called network science which is looking at how different areas of the brain or organised and how they are connected with each other, and they identified some differences between the two groups and genders.

On that basis they said that must be why women are such good social communicators, where men are really good at perception and action tasks. Of course, they didn’t have any data to suggest that that was true, and there’s a real risk that when you identify any differences in the brain that you use that to peddle some kind of gender stereotype.

It’s like me saying I’ve surveyed everyone in this room and the men, on average, are 10cms taller. That must be why men are such great leaders. Well, we’ve got no evidence that that’s true anyway. So I think that’s often why these things become so pervasive because it’s just a way of peddling well entrenched stereotypes.

Chris - So beware of the stereotypes. Is there any way of getting better at multitasking if you’re not good at it to start with? Is there various techniques that one could employ to improve that?

Duncan - Well, I’ve never tried it, but the bottom line with cognition is that practice makes perfect, so get masses of practice, even on very complicated tasks. Whether it generalises to other sorts of multitasking is a bit of a grey area.

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