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.