TV & Radio
Hunter vs. gatherer (and then some)
Men and women handle multi-tasking differently, scientists say. What they won't say, though, is who's better at it.
By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 8, 2006
PAM LOGAN is a multi-tasker by nature, by circumstance and by profession.
An air traffic controller based in San Diego, Logan shepherds jetliners into and through the airspace of Riverside County, routing them around swarms of small planes that operate from local airstrips. She is also a new wife, mother to a 13-year-old son, chief bill payer and procurement officer for her family, cleaner of all in her home but the bathrooms, and a student finishing her bachelor's degree. Just as she does with planes in her airspace, Logan often juggles the demands of her many roles simultaneously.
"I just need to do more than one thing at the same time," says Logan, 34. "I've always been that way."
Logan's husband of 18 months, John, "is not that way," Pam says simply. While she whirls like a dervish through the house, talking, putting away laundry, helping her son with his schoolwork, organizing her family's social life and completing her own classwork, John Logan cooks dinner. Or he checks his e-mail. Or he cleans the bathroom. "He focuses on one thing at a time," Pam Logan says.
The Logan household could be the epicenter of a scientific discussion on men, women and multi-tasking. Whether and how the sexes cope differently with multiple demands on their brainpower has become a hot topic around water coolers, at dining tables and in classrooms. For many women, female superiority in this realm is an article of faith.
"Not even close," says Cynthia McClain-Hill, a Los Angeles attorney, mother, community activist and legendary multi-tasker. "Most men I know would completely blow up or come unglued if they were challenged to get through the day of many working women."
But ask a roomful of scientists to pick a winner in the latest skirmish of the gender wars and most will simply venture that women and men multi-task differently. It may be the way their brains work, the way their hormones flow or the sheer weight of practice that makes some people more unflappable in the face of competing mental demands, they say.
Like parents refusing to pick favorites among their children, that is as far as most will go.
"I'd like to think women are better at things," says Melissa Hines, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at City University London. "But that doesn't seem to be one of them, at least not one we can measure in the lab."
Still, as neuroscientists peer into the brains of men and women, some have begun to see differences they think are revealing.
Different brain patterns
Husband-and-wife team Raquel and Ruben Gur study gender differences at the University of Pennsylvania. Ruben Gur says that in studies that compare the structure of men's and women's brains and in those that watch their brains at work, the genders tend to see the world differently and respond in different patterns.
In the lab, when men and women perform language tasks (in which women perform better) or spatial tasks (in which men outperform women), women's brains are activated widely, with much sharing of information between the hemispheres, Gur says. Women, he says, are naturally multi-tasking, sweeping in a wide array of details before they draw a conclusion.
When men are given the same tasks, their brains tend to "light up" more selectively, largely using those areas of the brain that specialize in the task at hand. And these components work together differently than in women. Men's brains are more richly connected by so-called "white matter" between the back of the brain, where information is received and processed, and the front, where responses and actions are formulated. By default, Gur says, men's brains are primed to act — often before priorities have been set and the whole of a situation is assessed and analyzed. Their approach to tackling many tasks at once may, in effect, be to roll up their mental sleeves and get working on them — one at a time but as fast as possible.
"In a stressful, confusing multi-tasking situation, women are more likely to be able to go back and forth between seeing the more logical, analytic, holistic aspects of a situation and seeing the details," Gur says. "Whereas men will be more likely to deal with [the situation] as, 'I see/I do, I see/I do, I see/I do.' "
That might make men, overall, a little faster at completing some tasks that involve mental juggling and women a bit more accurate. And it fits with the findings of a 2000 study of short-term, or working, memory conducted by UCLA researchers and published in the publication Neuroreport.
In a small group, Oliver Speck and colleagues observed different strengths, as well as different patterns of brain activation, in men and women as they performed working memory tasks — a cognitive skill that is key to multi-tasking. On average, women showed higher accuracy, but men had slightly faster reaction times, the group found.
Such gender-specific cognitive styles, says Boston psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, also may be key to why women appear to cope differently with the stresses of multi-tasking than men often do. Women tend to be more verbal — to talk about their challenges and stresses more readily than men, says Hallowell, author of "Crazy Busy: Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD."
Faced with multi-tasking overload, men "tend to cope with it badly: by pushing harder, by honking the horn," he says. Their impulse to "do something" often leads men to respond to such stresses with aggression and that's usually "the worst thing to do," he adds.
The "just do something" response is something Gur says he sees in himself. And it's a stark contrast to his wife's approach to multiple demands, he acknowledges. A practiced multi-tasker, Gur believes he's become pretty good at it. But his wife, he says, has him beat by a mile.
When both come home from work together and face the task of whipping up dinner for a hungry family, he says, "I just ask her, what do you want me to do?"
Finally, if practice makes perfect in the art of multi-tasking, then most of those who study gender roles agree that women should have an edge on the basis of experience alone.
Since the earliest days of human society, the female of the species has carried on multiple activities simultaneously. While caring for children, they cooked and tended the fire, raised crops and cured skins to furnish the dwelling. Men's roles in early society consistently required more singular focus, says Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher. "His basic job for millions of years was to sit behind a tree and hit the buffalo over the head with a rock," adds Fisher, author of "The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World."
As women have added paid work to their mix of familial duties, they have gravitated toward jobs that require multi-tasking as well, experts say. Even as women rise through the ranks in the labor market, they remain, as a group, more clustered in lower-paid jobs, says Ellen Galinsky, executive director of the New York-based Families and Work Institute. In the paid labor force, more of women's work is "invisible," focused on process and maintaining relationships, she adds. "It's work to make work work," Galinsky says.
As a result, women's work responsibilities are multiple, though often hard to identify or quantify. And because women are more likely than men to fill lower-level jobs, they tend to have less autonomy and less influence over work schedules and work demands.
"We can all see it around us, that women are the ones juggling more balls than men," says Hines, of City University London. "Usually if we do things more, we get better at it." But the evidence that women win this contest, she cautions, remains elusive.
For those intent on keeping score, however, one line of research appears to grant females a small victory. Speaking last April to fellow cognitive neuroscientists in San Francisco, multi-tasking researcher Marcel Just described gender differences observed in a screening test he gave to a group of prospective study subjects — most of them students at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches.
Twice as often as males, Just reported, female subjects were able to listen to two distinct voices and accurately answer questions about the content of their spoken messages. Such skills could give those who have them an important edge in certain settings, such as airline cockpits and air traffic control towers, Just says. But he cautions that his findings fall far short of suggesting "something universal" about women's multi-tasking skill.