Do Women Beat Men in Multitasking?


Are women really better ‘multitaskers’ than men? To answer this question, we need to understand what multitasking is, or the so-called simultaneous capacity.

Overall, there are two types of multitasking abilities. The first type is the skill of being able to deal (effectively) with multiples tasks demands without the need to carry out the involved tasks simultaneously.

The second type is the ability to process or carry out two types of information simultaneously. We often associate multitasking with the second type of multitasking, however, much research has examined the first type of multitasking because this is the type we use in real life contexts.

Stoet and colleagues (2013) emphasize the fact that while humans are asked to do the second type of multitasking in psychological tests, humans normally avoid such situations in real life contexts, unless they are highly trained.

Instead, we prefer to switch between two tasks, and some people outperform others in the way they switch between two tasks. Some cognitive skills (i.e., executive functions) are necessary for multitasking: task planning, postponing tasks depending on urgency and needs, and ignoring task-irrelevant information.

A new study by Stoet and colleagues (2013), involving 240 participants, examined gender differences in two multitasking experiments. The first experiment was a computer-based task-switching paradigm, and the second experiment was designed to test “planning” in a “real life” context.

The authors found it necessary to use two very different experimental paradigms to test the hypothesis that women are better than men in the first type of multitasking.

In the first experiment, the authors measured the response speed of men and women carrying out two different tasks. Men and women were found to perform the individual tasks with the same speed and accuracy, but when the two tasks were mixed, women were faster, i.e. they had an advantage.

In the second “real life” experiment, women performed better in one of the tasks measuring high level cognitive control, in particular planning, monitoring, and inhibition. The authors conclude that women have an advantage over men in the first type of multitasking.

In a recent study by Mäntylä (2013), men outperformed women in the second type of multitasking. This study has received much attention because it contradicts the common held belief that women are better than men in multitasking.

The second type of multitasking may be of less relevance to daily life contexts though. Some researchers think that gender is a poor predictor of multitasking skills, and studies that have shown no gender differences might simply have received less attention. However, Stoet and colleagues (2013) only found one study in the multitasking literature that reported no gender differences at all.

Image: Ryan Ritchie