Because of the pressure posed by their double roles – such as rocking the cradle
while working on a computer – working mothers are forced for about 48 hours a
week to do two things or more at the same time.
But although men
multitask much less than women, males regard this as a positive experience,
while females see it as an unpleasant burden.
These conclusions were
reached by Dr. Shira Offer, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology
at Bar-Ilan University’s sociology department and lead author of the study,
which was published on Thursday in the December issue of the American
Sociological Review and has aroused much interest.
“Gender differences in
multitasking are not only a matter of quantity but, more importantly, quality,”
said Offer. “Our findings provide support for the popular notion that women are
the ultimate multitaskers and suggest that the emotional experience of
multitasking is very different for mothers and fathers.”
The study found
that working mothers spend about 10 more hours per week multitasking than do
working fathers – 48.3 hours for mothers each week compared to 38.9 for
“This suggests that working mothers are doing two activities at
once more than two-fifths of the time they are awake, while working fathers are
multitasking more than a third of their waking hours,” explained study coauthor
Prof. Barbara Schneider of the College of Education and the sociology department
at Michigan State University.
The authors said an even bigger issue than
the time discrepancy is the difference in the way multitasking makes working
mothers and fathers feel. “There is a considerable disparity in the quality of
the multitasking experience for working moms and dads,” Offer said. “For
mothers, multitasking is – on the whole – a negative experience, whereas it is
not for fathers. Only mothers report negative emotions and feeling stressed and
conflicted when they multitask at home and in public settings. By
contrast, multitasking in these contexts is a positive experience for
The advice they give after conducting the study is that fathers
should roll up their sleeves and help mothers more.
According to Offer
and Schneider, their study shows that at least some of the difference in the way
multitasking makes working mothers and fathers feel is related to the types of
activities they perform.
“When they multitask at home, for example,
mothers are more likely than fathers to engage in housework or childcare
activities, which are usually labor intensive efforts,” Offer said. “Fathers, by
contrast, tend to engage in other types of activities when they multitask at
home, such as talking to a third person or engaging in selfcare. These
are less burdensome experiences.”
The new study relies on data from the
500 Family Study, a multi-method investigation of how middle- class families
balance family and work experiences based on comprehensive information collected
from 1999 to 2000 on families living in eight urban and suburban communities
across the US. Most parents in the 500 Family Study are highly educated,
employed in professional occupations, and work longer hours and report higher
earnings on average than do middle-class families in other nationally
representative samples. Although the 500 Family Study is not a representative
sample of families in the US, it reflects one of the most time-pressured
segments of the population.
The study uses a subsample of 368 mothers and
241 fathers in dual-earner families from the 500 Family Study.
found that among working mothers, 52.7 percent of all multitasking episodes at
home involve housework, compared to 42.2% among working fathers. Additionally,
35.5% of all multitasking episodes at home involve childcare for mothers versus
27.9% for fathers.
The authors also believe that doing several things at
once, particularly at home and in public, is a more negative experience for
working mothers than for fathers because mothers’ activities are more
susceptible to outside scrutiny.
“At home and in public are the
environments in which most household- and childcare-related tasks take place,
and mothers’ activities in these settings are highly visible to other people,”
“Therefore, their ability to fulfill their role as good
mothers can be easily judged and criticized when they multitask in these
contexts, making it a more stressful and negative experience for them than for
Working fathers don’t typically face these types of pressures,
the authors said.
“Although they are also expected to be involved in
their children’s lives and do household chores, fathers are still considered to
be the family’s major provider,” Offer said. “As a result, fathers face less
normative pressures and are under less scrutiny when they perform and multitask
at home and in public.”
So, what can be done to improve the situation for
mothers? It’s pretty simple – fathers need to help out more.
“The key to
mothers’ emotional well-being is to be found in the behavior of fathers,” Offer
said. “I think that in order to reduce mothers’ likelihood of multitasking and
to make their experience of multitasking less negative, the fathers’ share of
housework and childcare has to further increase.
employers can help facilitate this, the authors said.
employers should think about how to alter current workplace cultures, which
constitute serious obstacles when it comes to getting fathers more involved in
their families and homes,” Offer said.
“For example, I think that fathers
should have more opportunities to leave work early or start work late, so they
can participate in important family routines; to take time off for family
events; and to limit the amount of work they bring home, so they can pay
undivided attention to their children and spouse during the evening hours and on
The goal is to initiate a process that will alter fathers’
personal preferences and priorities and eventually lead to more egalitarian
norms regarding mothers’ and fathers’ parenting roles.”