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Women, Beware Of Praise For Being 'Natural Multitaskers'

11/07/2017 8:34 AM IST | Updated 11/07/2017 8:34 AM IST
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One day, the conversation at home had my husband state very clearly, "I am not a multitasker. Please don't ask me to do two things at the same time."

I was dumbstruck. All I had asked of him was to check if the milk on the stove was boiling while he was filling bottles with water. I didn't want the milk to boil over and he didn't want the water to overflow.

Turning away in disbelief, I realised that he had just reinforced the notion that men are not always good at multitasking, especially when compared to women who seem to possess an amazing ability to juggle several jobs all at once. Mind you, my husband always helps with housework and, in a sense, truly 'shares the load'. However, when it comes to multitasking, he maintains that it is a woman's forte.

The idea of women being multitaskers has always made me wonder if we, as women, have some extra powers to manage several things simultaneously. This longstanding gender stereotype maintains that women can take care of multiple activities related to both the house and office, while men are usually fit for office work only. It emphasises the conscious and unconscious biases faced by women that they are the primary caretakers while men are the primary breadwinners.

This longstanding gender stereotype maintains that women can take care of multiple activities related to both the house and office, while men are usually fit for office work only.

Media too propagates the idea of women being better at multitasking. This leads to the idea that men, on the other hand, can't and therefore don't, multitask. It also puts more pressure on women to live up to the imagery of being the perfect wife, mother and employee.

According to The Economics of Multitasking, a book published in 2016, mothers spent an average of 7.4 hours of their day multitasking, while fathers spent just 5.2 hours multitasking. Just because women are socially conditioned to multitask in order to balance their work and home, it doesn't mean that they are the only ones good at it.

If you observe closely, most people accomplish various tasks simultaneously. Here are some instances of multitasking that I come across every day:

  • Talking to someone on the phone and making notes
  • Eating food and watching TV
  • Talking to someone over the phone and answering the door
  • Folding clothes and instructing the child to finish her homework
  • Tidying up the house while on a conference call with office colleagues
  • Smoking and conversing with someone
  • Driving and simultaneously listening to music, talking, eating, or drinking coffee

This is not an exhaustive list and one can add many more examples.

Just because women are socially conditioned to multitask in order to balance their work and home, it doesn't mean that they are the only ones good at it.

Taking this observation to the workplace

Multitasking has largely come into discussion and become a highly desirable skill at the workplace post the 1990s, along with the evolution of technology which rapidly changed the office environment.

During office hours, one can notice almost all employees taking notes while on a conference call or while talking to someone one-on-one. Typically, they are involved in more than one project and interact with many colleagues in the course of the workday. They are also adept at fielding questions about the various projects they are involved in.

Our daily activities and observations show that both men and women can multitask just as well. Both cope with juggling priorities at workplaces such as addressing incoming emails and phone calls, completing assignments and projects on time, and jumping between meetings with clients. If women are better at multitasking it would only be so because they have mastered it by practice and nurtured it as a talent.

To label this as something 'only women can do,' is another excuse to dump more work on her, especially on the ones dealing with monotonous and underpaid or unpaid jobs.

The degree to which a person can multitask depends on their abilities and willingness to learn. Prioritising, organising one's day, and keeping calm under pressure are essential to becoming an effective worker.

To label this as something 'only women can do,' is another excuse to dump more work on her, especially on the ones dealing with monotonous and underpaid or unpaid jobs.

Such unconscious bias affects women the most as there are many preconceived assumptions made about their capability and commitment to work. Mostly these assumptions are just that — assumptions. Research backed data proves that there are many myths around women in the workplace that need to be addressed to ensure women are not subjected to biases.

My advice for women is to be cautious, especially when they hear 'praise' about women's ability to multitask. Watch out for any unproductive, unappreciative task being dumped on you. Reason out why a man can also do the same task and point out to the various multitasking actions accomplished by men every day. Remember, all human beings are multitaskers by nature.

By Shachi Irde, Vice President and Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC

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