Multi-tasking My Feminism

We used to brag about our ability to multitask. Employers would be excited to hear about our ability to keep track of multiple activities at the same time. It used to illustrate a sharp brain that could process information quickly and efficiently.

And then “they” did a study. I don’t remember who, and I don’t remember when, but I remember hearing about it, and taking note. According to the study, multi-tasking was not as efficient as we all believed it was. Simply put, the brain had to disengage from one activity before it could begin another activity. (Regardless of how quickly our brain could disengage and re-engage?  I’m not sure if that was ever looked into.) This process took 30 seconds, but that is 30 seconds that we couldn’t get back. That was a waste of 30 seconds, and therefore not as efficient as finishing one task before starting another one.

I had a manager once who gave morning meetings. It was a womens-only business, and for the most part, I had a lot of time for thinking while there. I was the morning receptionist, so I wasn’t always there for the meeting that the rest of the team really needed to hear. One morning, though, I caught the end of her daily pep talk. I cannot remember what she was referring to, but she made the point about something that all of the women really resonated with:

“It’s like when you’re cleaning the house. You don’t just finish one room at a time and move on. You start the dishes, pick up the papers, take the laundry to the bedroom, etc.”

I think it resonated with me so well because I had never thought about what I was doing in that way. Growing up, we had a list of cleaning chores that we ticked off throughout the weekend as they were done, so I always did think of it as accomplishing one task at a time. My favourite chore, though, was laundry, and that is something that necessitates ‘multi-tasking’ while you do it. Unless you take your laundry to a laundromat (something that I have always fantasized about but never had the pleasure to get to do), you put some dirty clothes, and go onto something else for the next 20-30 minutes while your machine is cleaning it. I think this may actually be why laundry is my favourite task around the house. When I’m doing laundry, I get it in the machine, and then I am motivated to do something else around the house while I am waiting for the next part of that task. It’s somewhat rewarding to have the tasks around the house broken down into small tasks that I can engage and disengage my mind from.

Last summer, I read an article about how women’s work around the home is still not valued for the amount of effort put into it. Simply put, women are still informally put into the position of house manager, needing to remember events, chores (“honey-do” lists are just one way of delegating), and holding the family unit to the standard required for that family.  This idea has led to many conversations with my feminist ally husband… and even a few arguments. (Our relationship thrives on the constant growth of understanding our world from our slightly different viewpoints.) I am still ruminating on this idea, and probably always will be ruminating on it.

(The article is on the drain that this mental workload places on women. I highly suggest you read the article and have conversations about this with your friends and family. Check it out here: The Mental Workload of a Mother)

Recently, it has dawned on me that – just as women’s role as ‘house manager’ is not valued – women’s ability to multitask is being devalued with this “new study.”  Of course, nobody in the study or the media reporting on the study would ever say that women’s ability to do this is actually detrimental. That’s not the power structure of patriarchy works at this point in time (nor for the majority of its recorded history). Power structures are often more nuanced than to blatantly state something like that. Instead, the strengths of the lower segment of society are inadvertently de-valued to keep their power and confidence at bay so that those in power can stay there with the value of the strengths that got them there still intact.

This brings me to my leading philosophy on the kind of feminist that I am. There are several forms of feminism – from those who think women should be treated (and as such act) just like men to those who push for the acceptance of gender fluidity and a rejection of the binary.  I sit somewhere in the middle of those groups (I just like seeing the whole spectrum so much).

I recognize that there is a cultural construction of each gender. Within those constructs, there are characteristics that we apply to either genders. For example, men are assumed to be better at spatial reasoning and therefore excel in mathematics. Women, in this example, are assumed to be better at emotional intelligence and therefore excel in roles as caregivers. I know that culture is not static, but a web that we are constantly creating and navigating throughout. In this web, men are told that they are better at math and so they are more interested in it and spend more time understanding it. Women are told that they are better at understanding emotions and are encouraged to learn more about other people’s feeling, opinions, and the social repercussions that this has. Our web is still constructed with patriarchal tendencies, and those dictate that mathematics is more valuable than people’s feelings. Building a bridge is seen as a greater accomplishment than building a team of people with diverse opinions.

My call to feminist arms is to change the characteristics that we as a society value.  All of us have amazing strengths, and it is time that society values those strengths for their uniqueness rather than valuing only those that have always been in power.

When it comes to multi-tasking, I can see it from a non-feminist viewpoint, too. In this the information age, we are bombarded with so much information, tasks, and something new and shiny, that it can be overwhelming for many people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that some people thrive more in this environment than others. This doesn’t mean that multi-tasking is bad for all of us. What should be focused on instead is how much multi-tasking is still efficient for one person before they can no longer hold it.

For me, I need that break after 20-30 minutes. I also need to feel like I am accomplishing something in order to be motivated to get something else done. As I get into any new role, I use this knowledge about myself to make my work that much more efficient. My multi-tasking load is not going to be the same as yours, and that’s OK.  As someone with an adequate emotional intelligence, I will accept your knowledge of yourself and your strengths and help you excel for who you are.  And, in a slightly different life, I might even have been able to build you a bridge, too. 😉