Series on Multi-tasking: Women vs. Men

It is not a myth – women really are better than men at multitasking, at least in certain cases, a study says. Men were slower and less organised than women when switching rapidly between tasks in tests by UK psychologists. Both sexes struggled to cope with juggling priorities, but men suffered more on average, according to the paper in the journal BMC Psychology.

“If men really are slower than women, it could have serious implications for how workplaces are organised”, says co-author Dr Gijsbert Stoet, of the University of Glasgow. “Multitasking is getting more and more important in the office – but it’s very distracting, all these gadgets interrupting our workflow. It could be that men suffer more from this constant switching,” he told BBC News.

First, they compared 120 women and 120 men in a computer test which involves switching between tasks involving counting and shape-recognition. Men and women were equal when tasks were tackled one at a time. But when the tasks were mixed up there was a clear difference. Both women and men slowed down, and made more mistakes, as the switching became more rapid. But the men were significantly slower – taking 77% longer to respond, whereas women took 69% longer. “This difference may seem small, but it adds up” over a working day or week, said Dr Stoet.

To make the experiment more relevant to everyday life, the researchers tried a second test. A group of women and men were given eight minutes to complete a series of tasks – locating restaurants on a map, doing simple maths problems, answering a phone call, and deciding how they would search for a lost key in a field. Completing all these assignments in eight minutes was impossible – so it forced men and women to prioritize, organize their time, and keep calm under pressure.

In the key search task in particular, women displayed a clear performance advantage over men, says co-author Prof Keith Laws, of the University of Hertfordshire. “Women used methodical search patterns, like going round the field in concentric rectangles. That’s a highly productive strategy for finding a lost object, whereas some men didn’t even search the whole field in any particular manner, which is just bizarre.”

The reason, he observed, was that women were more organised under pressure. “They spent more time thinking at the beginning, whereas men had a slight impulsiveness, they jumped in too quickly,” said Prof Laws. “It suggests that – in a stressed and complex situation – women are more able to stop and think about what’s going on in front of them.”

Altogether, they conclude that women “have an advantage over men” in multitasking, at least in certain situations.

“And of course there are men who are experts. We’d never claim that all men can’t multitask, or that only women can. But we’d argue the average woman is better able to organise her time and switch between tasks than the average man.”

“In a world where people increasingly have to multitask, we need to help individuals adapt their roles to their abilities”, said Prof Laws. “Of course I don’t think we should just assign women to roles where rapid switching is demanded,” he explained. “Instead, employers should consider assessing individuals’ ability in multitasking, as some firms already do. Because the truth is – people don’t seem to be very good at assessing themselves,” Prof Laws told BBC News.