Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

I was a child in the 1970s. My family was working-class. My father had a job in a factory, and my mother was a house-wife. That role was still called ‘house-wife’ back then, and it was still regarded as perfectly respectable. The poison hadn’t yet spread quite so far at that time. My parents were good people. They led simple lives. They went to church. They were typical of their generation.

After dinner in the evenings, my mother would wash up while my father sat down in front of the TV with the children. There were a few occasions when she was having a particularly stressful day. “It’s all right for you!”, she would say, “You only have one job to do during the day. You come home at 5 o’clock and that is it. I have a dozen jobs to do. My work is never finished!”

It was hard not to feel some sympathy for her. She was my mum after all. Only when I got older did I start thinking about it.

There were some days when I was at home, either because of school holidays or illness. On those days, I remember her daily routine was more or less the following:

  • 6:30 – 7:00 AM Wake up and help my dad get ready for work. Make his lunch etc. Get the kids up. Feed them breakfast.
  • 8:00 - 8:30 AM Pack the kids off to school.
  • 8:30 AM Go back to bed. Sleep for a while.
  • 9:30 – 10:00 Get up again. Do some light housework for an hour. Maybe go to the shop to buy something for dinner.
  • 12:00 - 4:30 PM. Eat lunch, listen to music, watch TV, read a book, meet friends, drink tea.
  • 4:30 PM Kids come home from school.
  • 5:00 – 5:30 PM Start to prepare dinner.
  • 6:00 PM Dad arrives home. Eat dinner together.
  • 8:00 PM Washing up all done. Sit down with family to watch TV or chat.
  • 9:00 PM Kids go to bed.
  • 11:00 PM Parents go to bed

My father, in contrast, worked 8:00 – 5:00 in a factory, doing a job he didn’t like, in order to finance the family. He was injured a couple of times by factory machinery and had to go to hospital. He was a local trade union organizer. There was no sleep or TV during the day for him. At the weekends, he was expected to take care of the car, the garden, and any repairs that needed to be done, as well as help my mother with shopping or whatever, and spend time with his kids. There is no question in my mind that my dad did far more work than my mum. We were a typical family. All the dads did far more work than all the mums. That is why the mums live longer.

But that is not what you would think if you listened to the feminists.

The domestic arrangements I describe have many advantages. That routine allows time for just mum and kids, just dad and kids, mum dad and kids, just mum and dad, just mum. Everyone’s material and emotional needs are taken care of (Well, nearly. There was not much in the way of dad-time. But that’s OK. Proper men are not expected to need anything for themselves).

But if you think that household sounds cosy, you’re wrong. Our minds have been poisoned by bourgeois-Patriarchal false consciousness. That home was in fact a “comfortable concentration camp”, in which my mother was being held in a state of perpetual servitude.

It became a feminist war-cry to complain that men have only one job to do, whereas house-wives (sorry, home-makers), have many. This was a strategy to extort more concessions out of men and/or the government by means of emotional manipulation. It is clear that, as in my parents’ case, a house-wife might finish work later in the evening than her husband. If you don’t bother to do the sums, it looks, on the face of it, like the feminists are right in claiming that women do more work than men. Of course, as with so many feminist claims, the truth is the direct opposite.

Having established by subterfuge the widespread belief that women do more work than men, the feminists then turned this into a virtue. The complaints of exasperated mothers to their husbands that “You only have one job to do, I have many”, later became “Women are better at multi-tasking than men”. “Men can only do one thing at a time, whereas women can manage many tasks simultaneously”.

This is the idea that I wanted to examine here.

The term itself has been appropriated from the computer industry. It refers to the ability of computers to perform several jobs simultaneously. An interesting fact to note is that computers can only perform one job at a time. Multi-tasking operating systems simply allow them to create the appearance of being able to do several things at once, by switching from one job to another faster than the human eye can detect. It comes in two flavours: co-operative multi-tasking, and pre-emptive multi-tasking. In co-operative multi-tasking, one job hogs the processor until it gives it up voluntarily, so that another job can have a chance. The problem is if the job goes into an infinite loop and cannot give up, the computer hangs, and needs to be re-started; then all jobs are lost. In the more sophisticated pre-emptive multi-tasking, the computer allocates a time-slice for each job, and once its time is up, the job is kicked out, and the next job is run. In both cases, all the jobs take turns one after the other. This creates the appearance that all jobs are running simultaneously. It is curious that the feminist media has chosen such a term to describe human behaviour. What they are referring to is the ability to perform several tasks at once, again by some kind of time-slicing or attention-switching.

As far as I am aware, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the claim that women are better at multi-tasking than men. Feminists who make such claims offer nothing in the way of any kind of credible psychological model, or theory in the Philosophy of Action, no appeal to evolutionary theory. Nothing. It is an example of what is called ‘folk psychology’.

Let’s consider a simple case study. There is a family rather like my own. The father is a mechanic who spends his day fixing cars. The mother is a house-wife who stays at home and looks after the kids. I have already examined the routine of such a woman, but what about the man? He only has one job to do, right? Fix cars. That’s it.

He probably has to do the following:

  • Receive customers and discuss their car problems.
  • Drive a wide variety of vehicles and park them in small spaces.
  • Inspect the vehicle to diagnose faults.
  • Contact suppliers to order parts, chasing them in case of problems.
  • Receive parts deliveries and check them to ensure they are correct, dealing with any problems found.
  • Fit the new parts to the vehicle, and test the vehicle to ensure correct function. This is a safety-critical job. If he gets it wrong, people may die.
  • Receive cash or credit card payments from customers.
  • Deal with the company accounts, including paying taxes.
  • Advertise the business.
  • Recruit other staff including juniors/ apprentices.
  • Train and manage other staff.
  • Ensure government licenses are in order.
  • Clean vehicles
  • Clean work area
  • Maintain tools in good condition.
  • Maintain safe and healthy working environment
  • Be able to deal with accidents and administer first aid.
  • Keep up with new technology and developments in the industry.

There are probably other things I have missed. In fact, any one of these sub-tasks can be further sub-divided.

This sounds to me like multi-tasking. It seems to me that fixing cars is a lot more difficult than looking after children. It is more dangerous, and more intellectually and socially demanding.

By saying, ‘you only have one job to do, I have many’, feminists are playing a cheap intellectual con-trick. They are using different levels of description in each case, so they are not comparing like with like. They analyse ‘looking after children’ into its constituent detailed parts, but refuse to analyse ‘fixing cars’ in any detail at all. Thus, they create the cheap illusion that they have many jobs to do, whereas a man has only one.

Having been established as a popular urban myth, the Myth of Multi-Tasking has been used to claim that women make better commercial managers than men. In the new knowledge-based economy, so the story goes, multi-tasking and networking skills are at a premium. Because women are better at these than men, they are better suited to the new economy. Hence the future is female.

In fact, a future in which women sacrifice having children for swaggering around an office selling insurance is no future at all. It is cultural death.

The argument collapses once the Myth of Multi-Tasking is debunked in any case. It fails on many other levels too. I am a software developer, so I work in the ‘new knowledge-based economy’. We are notoriously bad at multi-tasking. We need to be left alone for a long time to write one program. It has some similarities to writing a book. We don’t often do a lot of ‘networking’ (except in a purely technical sense). I couldn’t work if I had to juggle three ringing phones, and endless meetings. I can do that, but I would have to take a different job. I am making two points:

  • The ‘new knowledge-based economy’ does not always require 'multi-tasking' skills.
  • There is no evidence that women are better at these than men in any case.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking has been further used in combination with the Myth of the Pay-gap: Despite the fact that women are better then men – not just as good as men, but actually better – they are still paid less by the evil Patriarchal-Capitalist Establishment. That goes to show just how much contempt men have for women. Woe, woe and thrice woe.

Warren Farrell once asked a very simple question. I have yet to hear an answer to it. Any answer. Even a bad one. There has been dead silence from the feminist camp so far. The question is this:

If women are just as good as men (or even better), and they are cheaper to employ, then why do employers ever hire men at all? Why don’t they just hire an all-female work-force? If one employer refuses to employ women because he is a sexist hater, then another employer down the street (perhaps a female one) will do so. The cut-throat world of business is a very Darwinian place. The sexist hater would be driven out of business before very long. Thus, the Myth of the Pay Pap, like the Myth of Multi-Tasking, just doesn’t make any sense at all.


pjanus said...

Apparently, there is a lot of multi-tasking involved in landing a jet on a moving ship. Women are notoriously bad at it.

Anonymous said...

Well said sir!

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Heretic, for taking the time to explain in clear words.

I have copied your words to my Warcraft File.


MarkyMark said...


You've been on my link list for one simple reason: turning out great stuff like this! I liked this post so much that I ran it on my blog also. I included links both to your blog and the post itself. This is great stuff! I feel like the student sitting at the feet of the professor when I read stuff like this...


Elusive Wapiti said...


You make an interesting point about the knowledge economy. I was trained as a software developer. I recall seeing studies...and can attest to by personal experience...that the kind of creative work that gets done in a knowledge economy is only accomplished by workers who can sit down and concentrate for hours on end. Interruptions (such as the telephone or drop-in coworkers) break their flow. Workers who can't concentrate like this are worthless because they don't produce anything.

I've thought about the multi-tasking thing before. And it's true that I as a man need alone time undisturbed to be creative. But when it comes to tasks that are repetitive, that involve the application of formalized procedures, and (usually) not a whole lot of applied brain power, I can "multitask" just fine.

See I am a pilot by trade. And I can somehow manage to maneuver a 6-ton machine through three dimensional space, have both hands, arms, a few fingers, my head, and both of my feet moving all at once. This while having two or three radios blaring in my ears, and monitoring an entire dashboard worth of gauges. Oh, and managing the efforts of a 3 to 6-man crew, as we negotiate winds, weather, turbulence, power lines, towers, trees, and rocks in the landing zone.

In my experience, men handle this deluge of tasks and data just as well as women. Where women fall short in aviation (in my limited experience) is when there is political pressure to promote or certify women who don't have the skill sets to be safe, so that some quota or hiring target is met.

And incidentally, the captcha phrase for this comment is "flying". How weird is that?

JimmyGiro said...

Excellent post Heretic. I have to confess that I've been semi-duped by the myth.

I've just finished a stint as a casual, at the local postal sorting office for the Christmas mail; I noticed that there were male and female workers who could work fast and fairly accurately. The girls claim to excellence was their ability to chat and sort at the same time (a skill I lacked).

But these 'skills' become undone when you consider that the chat is fairly trivial, relatively predigested and not so considered; plus the level of accuracy of sorting may well have dipped. The last bit was never correlated, but one female discovered the inaccuracies of another girl.

I suspect that those who multi-task their work with inane chat, are probably performing to a perfunctory standard; whereas we 'poor linear' men suffer from a focussed mind. Basically you can do twice as many half-arsed things, or one thing to your best effort.

And finally, during university I recall in physics and chemistry just how often the girls complained when a particularly good lecturer would take the topic at hand and relate it to another discipline, as a means of expanding a concept; the girls preferred the linear processing of information, like reading a recipe, rather than learning a concept to be used as a conceptual tool for other problems.

So my feelings about multi-tasking is that there might be something in it, but at the cost of quality and depth. And if women are so 'good' at it, why doesn't the BBC arrange a game show to humiliate men by, with tests of multi-tasking?

wobs said...

I once save the following from the comments of a blog:

"It all began a few years back when scientists discovered that women's brains tend to work on a number of different subjects simultaneously, while men had the ability to switch off the irrelevant parts of their brain activities and concentrate on the one important job in hand. This can largely be put down to historic sex roles: men had to learn to switch off because trying to listen to different competing thoughts in your head when you are facing a raging lion or an armed enemy, is highly conducive to losing concentration, getting killed and not passing on your genes. Women sitting in the safety of their caves or huts had no such constraints and could happily entertain lots of ideas at once, because there was no downside. It also suited their tendency to talk endlessly: you need a constant stream of trivial subjects flying around in your head to keep the verbiage flowing. It all fits.

Somehow the report on this brain phenomenon was seized on by feminist journalists and others too lazy to research the facts properly, and got distorted in the reporting. In next to no time we had ridiculous claims that every woman on the planet was dazzlingly brilliant at doing ten intensely complex tasks all at the same time, while every man on the planet was a simple-minded churl who struggled to walk and chew gum at the same time. it was a scientifically proven fact.

Apart from the preposterousness of this image, nobody seemed to notice that there is a huge difference between "multi-thinking" and "multi-doing". Thus women's ability to keep several ideas bouncing around in their head at the same time, without thinking any one of them through properly, got mysteriously translated into actually being able to DO several things all at once.

This breathtaking crap has become accepted mainstream thinking in the media, and thence into the thick skulls of women everywhere who naturally believe every absurd claim to female brilliance because they love to be flattered and can't tell the difference between the truth and a heaving pile of bullshit.

So you now have endless numbers of women totally convinced that being female means they can cook an omelette, take the dog for a walk, mend a plug, put up a shelf, vacuum the bedroom, solve Rubik's cube, write a letter and do the washing up, all in the same micro-second. The simple fact that they obviously can't does not intrude upon their fantasy one iota.

So that's their famous multi-tasking.

Men don't claim to multi-task, but they simply get the job done. Did I not read somewhere that Colin McCrae the rally driver, was reckoned to process 33 pieces of information in his brain in one second while driving at high speed along a complex route? Now that's what I call multi-tasking."

Anonymous said...

wobs said...

Indeed Wob and whilst talking to a pal of mine he mentioned to me that girls are under so much pressure these days. Being the Father of 5 girls I thought at the time he was your typical "male feminist".

Having read your ideas I can see that isn't the case and he's more likely a parent who struggles whilst the dominant ideology of feminism "unwittingly" turns his daughters into "have it all" dysfunctional adults.

As an MRA I've just had a eureka moment in that rather than concentrating on the damages caused to males let's point out the damage caused to females by feminism?

Mark said...

"And if women are so 'good' at it [multi-tasking], why doesn't the BBC arrange a game show to humiliate men by, with tests of multi-tasking?"

Be careful what you wish for, JimmyGiro. Do you really think they wouldn't be tempted to pit some Mensa-level women against guys of much more average ability?

Mark said...

Heretic wrote "I am a software developer"

Tell me you don't...

Dim i as n
Dim gender as c

Case gender = "f"
i = 1
for i < 10,000
thumbs = twiddle
crashes = random
i = i + 1
run everything pronto
End case

I knew it. You evil patriarch! :o)

What type of stuff do you develop?

gwallan said...

Mark said...
Be careful what you wish for, JimmyGiro. Do you really think they wouldn't be tempted to pit some Mensa-level women against guys of much more average ability?

Both of them?

Anonymous said...

There have been a couple of studies about the possibilities and the limits of so-called multitasking. It may come as no surprise to us that some tasks can be performed in a semi multitask way, for instance walking and talking at the same time. However, when some degree of conscious attention is needed, the efficiency (the overall time to complete a task at a minimum level of quality) of the performed tasks starts to become lower compared to the efficiency of the tasks when performed one after another. And since efficiency is one of the concerns for a lot of managers in a typical office environment, these studies are gaining more attention. Too much multitasking leads to poorer quantitative and qualitative job performance. At the same time, these studies indeed show that the whole hullabaloo about women being better at multitasking is feminist wishful thinking. No evidence is found that, with respect to multitasking, men and women are generally speaking that much different. However, some studies suggested that men are better in concentration over prolonged periods of time, making them better suitable for jobs that required this kind of attention and concentration.

Anonymous said...

Men are always multi tasking. Doing whatever we're doing, and thinking about sex. After all, men are always thinking about sex, aren't they? Just ask any feminist!

Heretic said...

I work on financial systems, but that is not what this blog is about.

thecomicrelief said...

I have an answer for you to Farrell's question. Unfortunately, it comes from my own father.

Apparently there exists in our society a phenomenon called "institutional bias." People are so prejudiced and sexist, often unknowingly, that their sexism supersedes the Darwinian efficacy of the free market.

Luckily for us, all we have to do to fix this problem is inform every male business manager that he is sexist. And luckily for you and me, Heretic, I believe this patent bullshit is the best answer we're going to get.

Anonymous said...

Women must be multi-tasking. Why else would it take them on average of 4 times as long as a man to go to the toilet, 6 times as long to take a shower, 7 times as long to get dressed and all day to buy a pair of shoes?

I have seen one actually multi-tasking – watching a soap-opera with the radio on, while chatting hand-free on her cell phone, while eating chocolates with a friend, and painting her nails while her hair was drying. All I could do was clear her blocked shower outlet!

Ex Victorian Police Commissioner Cristine Nixon, managed to keep a hairdresser´s appointment, have a long meeting with the publisher of her memoirs and go out to dinner while coordinating the fire-fighting, emergency, police and ambulance services of the state on the day predicted to be the most dangerous in history, and still hang on to her job till an even higher-paid one was offered. No man could achieve that!