Are women better at multi-tasking than men? Most of us have heard this claim at least once around the office. In fact, it is such a common belief that one might be forgiven for thinking that there must be good evidence supporting this notion. But is there?
Recently, our research team here at TTS decided to investigate the claim empirically. Fortunately, we had a rich data pool to draw from using cut-e’s (an Aon company) multi-tasking competency tool..
Background to the study
The belief that men and women differ in their multi-tasking ability is pervasive. For instance, a 2015 study using participants from various nations found that 57% of participants believed there were meaningful gender differences in multi-tasking. Of those sampled, 80% believed that women performed better at multitasking than men.
However, research evidence showing actual gender differences in multi-tasking performance is harder to find, and where such studies have been conducted, findings have been mixed.
In fact, more recent studies show no significant differences in everyday multi-tasking activities between women and men.
The scales mt assessment
The scales mt from cut-e (an Aon company) is a measure designed to determine a candidate’s competence at performing several tasks at once. Clients frequently include this assessment in projects related to the selection of call centre staff and data entry positions, all of which require a high degree of multitasking competence.
The assessment itself includes three sub-tasks: catching objects, calculating numbers, and checking details, each of which need to be solved simultaneously.
The catching task consists of a candidates catching as many balls as possible with a basket, while the calculating task consists of deciding quickly if a given equation is correct or not. Finally, the checking task requires a candidate to check within 10 seconds if any character appears twice within a string of 7 characters.
The current study
For our study, we extracted data from the scales mt assessment over the previous three years. In total, a random sample of 1 124 assessment completions was created that met our criteria of (a) having gender information captured and (b) educational background data available.
The gender split was 51% female and 49% male participants. The majority of candidates had completed high school (39%), a degree (30%), or a postgraduate degree (11%).
We tested for multi-tasking differences based on criteria other than gender such as age, cultural background, language group, English as first language, and highest level of education. As expected, since the random sampling of the original data extract was designed to yield equivalent groups, no significant differences were noted based on non-gender demographic information.
Therefore, we felt confident that any multi-tasking score differences between women and men would primarily be due, in some way, to gender rather than other factors.
Due to the large sample sizes under study (e.g. 550 in each group), even very small differences between the two groups would have flagged as statistically significant. As such, we considered both a test of statistical significance and a calculated practical effect size (Cohen’s d-statistic) as indicators of significant differences.
The table below summarises our
In terms of overall performance on multi-tasking, we found no statistically or practically significant differences between the genders.
Some differences were observed regarding individual task performance. While virtually no difference was observed between men or women for the calculation task (d = 0.06), there was a modest effect size (0.13) observed for the checking task in favour of women. Conversely, in the catching task, men scored better (effect size = 0.11).
However, these differences, although statistically significant, are not even considered to be “small” in terms of conventional reporting standards (as per Cohen’s 1988 definition).
As such, the differences observed between men and women for subtasks were practically insignificant and unlikely to represent real-world differences in aptitude for multi-tasking.
So, based on our study, are women better at multi-tasking than men? At least in the way that our assessment measured multi-tasking competence, the answer is “probably not.”
Given the large and (relatively) diverse sample we had access to, and given that we controlled for possible confounding variables such as education, it seems that, like so many purported (and stereotypical) gender differences, multi-tasking as a gender-mediated competence is more fiction than fact.
If you would like to know more about this study or if you’re interested in how TTS might help you understand how to apply IO Psychology research in your organisation, why not connect with us at: firstname.lastname@example.org?
1. Szameitat, A. J., Hamaida, Y., Tulley, R. S., Saylik, R., & Otermans, P. C. J. (2015). “Women are better than men”—Public beliefs on gender differences and other aspects in multitasking. PLoS ONE, 10(10), e0140371. https ://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0140371.
2. Hirnstein, M., Laroi, F., & Laloyaux, J. (2019). No sex difference in an everyday multitasking paradigm. Psychological Research, 83, 286-296.