Busting this myth should influence workplace, household and government policy.
I watch as she talks on the phone while cooking dinner, wrangling a two-year old and doing dishes as she goes, all the while referring to paperwork as she tries to give answers to lawyers about a complex estate mediation case.
She somehow manages to pull it all off. I would like to say she does it with ease, but that’s not true. It’s a struggle, I can see that, but she does it admirably. It’s difficult to not be in awe of her prowess as she juggles multiple tasks.
When it comes to what I thought was ‘multitasking’, she puts me to shame.
And yet, a new study, published in PLOS One, shows women are actually no better at multitasking than men.
As reported in The Conversation, the study tested whether women were better at switching between tasks and juggling multiple tasks at the same time. The results showed women's brains are no more efficient at either of these activities than men's.
Do I dare tell her that she’s no better than me at multitasking? Not likely. Can you imagine how she’d chide me for making such a statement?
And yet that’s not true either, say study authors Patricia Hirsch, Iring Koch and Julia Karbach. No one is actually good at multitasking. Women simply work more than men.
“Multitasking is the act of performing several independent tasks within a short time. It requires rapidly and frequently switching attention from one task to another, increasing the cognitive demand, compared to completing single tasks in sequence,” writes Leah Ruppanner an Associate Professor in Sociology and co-director of The Policy Lab, University of Melbourne.
“This study builds on an existing body of research showing human brains cannot manage multiple activities at once. Particularly when two tasks are similar, they compete to use the same part of the brain, which makes multitasking very difficult.
“But human brains are good at switching between activities quickly, which makes people feel like they're multitasking. The brain, however, is working on one project at a time.”
German researchers compared the abilities of 48 men and 48 women in identifying letters and numbers. In some tests, participants were required to pay attention to two tasks at once, while in others they needed to switch attention between tasks.
When reaction time and accuracy for the multitasking experiments was measured against performing one task only, they found substantially reduced speed and accuracy when multitasking for both men and women, with no difference between the two.
So the belief that women are better at multitasking and therefore able to do more work is a myth.
“Public opinion persists that women have a biological edge as super-efficient multitaskers. But, as this study shows, this myth is not supported by evidence,” writes Assoc. Prof Ruppanner.
“This means the extra family work women perform is just that – extra work. And we need to see it as such.”
She goes on to say that busting this myth should influence workplace, household and government policy.
“As well as in the home, we need to dismantle these myths in the workplace. The assumption women are better multitaskers can influence the allocation of administrative tasks. Tasks like taking minutes and organising meetings should not be allocated based on gender,” she writes.
“Women need affordable, high-quality, and widely available childcare. Men also need access to flexible work, parental leave and childcare to share in this labour, and protections to ensure they aren't penalised for taking time to share in the care.
“Debunking these myths that expect women to be superheroes is a good thing, but we need to go further and create policy environments where gender equality can thrive.”
Did this research take you by surprise? Do you think women simply work more than men? How do you divide tasks in your household? Do you feel you have a fair and equitable share of household and work duties?
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