There's a stereotype out there that women are, in general, better multitaskers than men. Any mother can probably tell you how that belief got started...  while simultaneously juggling a whining toddler, a work conference call, and an explosive spill.

As the people who still do the lion's share of caregiving while often also managing serious careers, women can often be seen doing way more than one thing at once. But while the double burden of home and work responsibilities might force women to multitask, new research pokes a gigantic hole in the story that they're actually somehow better at it.

Nope, new science says, women suck at multitasking just as much as men.  

Women aren't magically wired to be better at multitasking.

To figure this out a team of Norwegian researchers scientists designed what sounds like the least fun video game of all time -- it's basically the worst parts of life, virtualized.

"Participants... are 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 distractors such as a missing chair and a phone call, and to remember actions to be carried out in the future (e.g., give an object to an avatar, put the coffee on the meeting table at a certain time)," the scientists explained in an HBR post.

Yup, that sounds like a pretty good simulation of day to day life for lots of us. So how did people do at the game? No matter how the researchers sliced the data, the same result emerged and it's incredibly simple to summarize: the scientists "found no differences between men and women in terms of serial multitasking abilities."

Or in the simplest possible language, being asked to rapidly switch between different tasks sucks just as much for women as for men. There is no magical "women's brain wiring" that makes it easier or more pleasant for us to try to simultaneously comb a kid's hair while sounding halfway professional on a work call.  

Maybe we shouldn't ask them to do so much of it then. 

Which is fascinating as basic psychology, but it also has pretty profound social implications. Not only do women still do something like 40 percent more household chores and put in double the hours of childcare (14 hours a week, on average, compared to men's seven). Women are also asked to take on the majority of household mental tasks, like remembering birthdays and keeping tracking of administrative minutiae (Did we renew the car registration? Did you schedule the baby's vaccination?).

Part of the reason (or at least the justification) for this unfair split is the underlying belief that women are somehow better able to cope with the mental clutter and daily franticness that all these tasks produce.

Newsflash: they are not.

We hate running around like headless chickens just as much as the guys. Having brains littered with endless to-do lists is just as taxing for us and impacts our ability to do our work well just as much as it does for men. We're just forced to multitask more. 

The bottom line: maybe it's time to stop pretending biology somehow makes women better suited to constant frenzy and start splitting work up more fairly.

Published on: Sep 27, 2018