While women’s supposed superiority at multitasking has garnered headlines, the scientific findings regarding sex differences in multitasking abilities are rather inconsistent: Some studies found no sex differences while others reported either a male or female advantage.
One reason for these inconsistent findings may be that, to date, the vast majority of studies have examined gender differences using artificial laboratory tasks that do not match up with the complex and challenging multitasking activities of everyday life. Another possible culprit is that different researchers define multitasking differently.
To address these concerns, we developed a computerised task that was designed to resemble everyday life activities and, at the same time, that was grounded in the most comprehensive theoretical model of multitasking activities.
Participants found themselves in a three-dimensional space, consisting of three rooms. They were required to prepare a room for a meeting; that is, they have to place objects such as the chairs, pencils, and drinks in the right location, while at the same time dealing with distractions such as a missing chair and a phone call, and to remember actions to be carried out in the future. Such tasks also allow for measuring many variables at the same time.
Finally, the task was designed to place participants in an unfamiliar situation: that is, in a situation where most people do not have any previous experience that would help them in carrying out the task.
We found no differences between men and women in terms of serial multitasking abilities. If they do exist, such differences are likely to be very small.