Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Women Multi-Task Better than Men

There's been an awful lot written about why women can multi-task better than men. Two falsehoods, or at least half-truths, run through this discussion. The first is the notion that women can do something "better" than men. This is a value judgement. The debate is rarely framed as men being able to focus on the task at hand better than women. Say that mothers make better parents than fathers because they can multi-task and you're fine, but say that men have won more Nobel prizes than women because they are single-minded and you're up S**t's Creek without a paddle.

The second half-truth is that this gender difference as more to do with "nature" than "nurture". For example, articles are quick to point out that women have a larger corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, thus creating a "natural" advantage for spreading multiple tasks over different regions of the brain. Is this really "nature"? Could it be the case that performing specific behaviours repetitively over time would result in differential development of related parts of the brain? Are we simply reversing cause and effect here?

Here's a "nurture" argument for why women can multi-task and why men are so single-minded. Young children do not understand the notion of waiting. Phrases like “just a sec”, “wait a minute”, “We’ll be there soon” have no meaning whatsoever to a 4 year old. Which means, when one of kids wants something, if I am hopelessly entangled in another task, I have to – you guessed it – fulfil their need at the same time I am doing something else. In contrast, a colleague at work perfectly understands these phrases, and even more formally, the idea that she should (a) make an appointment, (b) ask permission to interrupt, or (c) apologise for barging in before disrupting my ongoing train of thought. If I suggest that I am very busy – on a single task – she will likely understand and come back later or email me about setting a specific meeting time. I don’t have to multi-task.

Now women have generally spent more time caring for young children than men, and men have generally spent more time in the office than women. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, just or unfair, sexist or efficient. It just is, and has been. Could this be the influence of nurture, or more precisely gender roles, in the female superiority in multi-tasking? Is this why men are so single-minded? Since becoming a single father I must say I’ve become quite the little multi-tasker, often managing to do the laundry, prepare dinner, help with homework, write parts of books and articles, and supervise children more or less at the same time. I’m not as good as the best mothers I know, but then again, I’ve got much less experience than they do.

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