The popular stereotype that women excel at multitasking when compared to men has been proven to be false. In fact, both men and women were found to be equally bad at engaging in two tasks at the same time.
Researchers studying cognitive skills and pitting women against men for decades have found that both sexes' performance is usually similar, notes a report by the Harvard Business Review.
There are, however, a few tasks where women and men consistently outperform each other on average. Examples of tasks where research has established this discrepancy are the verbal abilities of women. Women outperform men in tasks like remembering a list of words or like verbal content. Men, on the other hand, were found to be better at visual tasks like imaging complex 3-dimensional shapes and figures.
As for the subject of multitasking, in spite of many claiming to "know it as a fact", with news headlines often claiming so as well, the report points out that actual scientific findings to support these claims have been rather inconsistent. There are a number of studies that show one scoring over the other and studies have also found no difference in multitasking skills between the sexes.
The report explains that one reason why studies show inconsistent findings may be because a vast majority of such experiments examine gender differences based on laboratory tasks in a lab and they do not really match with the complexities that come with the activities of regular, everyday life. Also, there is no set definition for the concept of multitasking and researchers each creates their own versions of it. Leading to more inconsistencies.
The new research has attempted to address these concerns, by developing a computerised task called the Meeting Preparation Task (CMPT), designed so that researchers could place all participants in the exact same conditions. So then their performances can be easily and more accurately compared and other variables can be easily avoided.
It was designed to resemble everyday life while also keeping it grounded within a comprehensive and theoretical model. The model used was of University College London professor Paul Burgess, notes the report. Burgess has laid out two types of multitasking activities—concurrent multitasking, where a person is involved in two or more activities at the same time as being on the phone while also driving. The second type is serial multitasking, where there is a rapid switch between tasks, like a regular office day- preparing for meetings, answering emails, chatting with a colleague, and checking the phone for updates.
This study involved the second—serial multitasking, and this was what they tested.
Participants of the CMPT were placed in a 3-dimensional space where there are three rooms—a kitchen, storage, and a "main room" where tables and projection screens were placed. The task was to prepare the said room for a meeting. Participants have to place objects like chairs, pencils, and drinks in the right place, while also dealing with distractions, notes the report. Distractions included a missing chair, a phone call, and they also had to remember actions to be carried out in the near future.
Tasks like these could make it possible to measure multiple variables at the same time. The task also placed all the participants in a location and situation that was alien to them.
Participants of the study were 66 females and 82 males aged between 18 and 60 years. They each took the CMPT.
Results were categorised into:
The overall accuracy of task completion
Total time taken to complete the task
Total distance travelled in the virtual environment
Did participants forget to carry out any tasks?
How they overcame interrupting events
"We found no differences between men and women in terms of serial multitasking abilities," write the researchers.
"We cannot exclude the possibility that there are no sex differences in serial multitasking abilities, but if they do exist, such differences are likely to be very small."
The report, however, did call for multiple studies to take this test up and see if they are getting similar results and even look into concurrent multitasking. "But we think it is fair to conclude that the evidence for the stereotype that women are better multitaskers is, so far, fairly weak," they concluded.