The real truth about women and multi-tasking

Is it fact or fiction?

Jane_FranklandI love technology; especially social media, but unfortunately I’m like most people – I find it incredibly distracting. And, as it advances, my attention seems to be spread amongst tasks more thinly. Whilst I wasn’t especially worried by this, I’ve just read a piece of research that says that the way we work can be just as important as distractions from it.

To elaborate, research conducted by Dr Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University monitored the impact of multitasking on workers’ performances. The results showed that when test participants were interrupted by lots of emails and phone calls whilst trying to work on other things, their IQ dropped by 10 points. Alarmingly, this equals the effect of missing a whole night’s sleep and more than doubles that of smoking marijuana! Oh golly!!!

As most of us know (or we think we do), women are great at multi-tasking so I decided to investigate whether this actually affected both sexes in the same way as the research that came my way was non-gender specific.

Are women really better at multi-tasking?

Thankfully a team of British (go team GB) researchers decided to answer the question once and for all! They concluded (officially) that women really are better than men at juggling more than one task at-a-time. British psychologist Keith Laws, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire led the study and here’s a quick summary as to what they did and found.

The test: They gathered 100 students — 50 men and 50 women — and gave them 8 minutes to perform 3 tasks at the same time. They all got the same tasks, which included solving simple maths problems, finding restaurants on a map, and devising a strategy for finding a lost key in an imaginary field. Then, while they were juggling those assignments, the subjects received a telephone call, which they could answer or ignore. If they answered, they were asked some general knowledge questions while they continued the original tasks.

The result: The women had few problems handling everything at once. In fact, 70% of them performed better than their average male counterparts. The men handled the maths questions without many problems and did OK pinpointing the map locations. However, the women put them to shame when it came to the most complicated task – developing a plan for finding the lost key.

What was the big difference?

Men didn’t approach the job logically. They just jumped into the middle of the field and dashed around looking for the key, never managing to cover the entire area. Women, however, tended to start in one corner, and methodically searched the whole field moving out in concentric circles or lines

Why might women be better at multi-tasking?

CNN’s Dr Sanjay Gupta suggested it might be on account of evolution. “While ancient men were responsible primarily for hunting and gathering, women had to tend to the children, the house and all the other activities of daily living,” he said. “Over the years, women may have retained this ability, translating into an improved ability to multi-task.”

So if I’m a woman, does multi-tasking make me more efficient?

Unfortunately the answer is probably not. There is evidence that multi-tasking is a drag on productivity for pretty much everyone, regardless of gender. The reason for that relates to the basic structure of brain says Dr. Etienne Koechlin of France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research. “The right and left hemispheres cooperate when working on a single task, but in two tasks, one hemisphere covers the reward of one task, and the other hemisphere covers the reward of the other.” That, unfortunately, applies to both genders.

So my question to you is, what do you think based on your experience? As a woman do you feel that you can multi-task effortlessly without it being a drain on productivity? Do you feel this is instinctive or man-made?  I have to say, that I personally think that most women can do this instinctively without it being a drain as I’ve certainly been running a home, managing children and a business for a long time! Let me know your thoughts as I’d love to hear.

Thank you, as always for reading and contributing here. If you found this useful, please share it with your friends!

With love and gratitude – as always,



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Jane Frankland is a successful cyber security entrepreneur, consultant and speaker who has had a diverse career encompassing art and design; business development; and operations. Having held directorships and senior executive positions within her own companies and at several large PLCs, she now provides agile, forward thinking organisations with strategic business development solutions. Right now she is writing a book on gender diversity in cyber security and is focused on increasing the numbers of women in the profession.

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