The multitasking gene

Published 10 years ago

Have you ever wondered why it is that men who are happy to question everything about women, including their ability to think rationally and lead organizations intelligently and profitably, say nothing about multitasking?

I have a theory. I admit it is no science or divinely revealed knowledge, but it is a theory nevertheless.

You see, growing up in my grandmother’s house in Soweto, South Africa, I did not know that as a male child I was not inherently able to multitask.


From an early age, I was responsible for certain chores. For example, it was my responsibility to pick up litter around the yard. Later, I also became responsible for cleaning the toilet, which in the original township houses was always in a corner at the end of the yard.

With my cousins, boys and girls, we were all responsible for more than one task. We had to juggle these with playing, doing schoolwork and keeping up with the latest hits on the radio. I had to pick up my younger siblings from crèche, do my father’s dry cleaning and whatever other extra chores my mother had commanded.

While playing street soccer with my friends, I remember watching the length of the shadows to determine when my grandmother was about to arrive home, which meant that I had to run home to boil water for her tea.

My point: I had to read books to learn that as a man, I was not a natural at multitasking. This, according to mass media, happens to be a woman thing.


At first it was a disappointment. You see, I grew up in a South Africa obsessed with emphasizing how inherently different human beings were. As a result of my political consciousness, I questioned anything that suggested some people were lucky to be born with certain genes and those who were not just had to grin and bear it.

Then it dawned on me: If I had a partner whom I could praise for being a natural multitasker, my life would be so much easier.

I could get away with doing very little around the house. I would do only one thing at a time and if, for argument’s sake, it coincided with my favorite sport on TV, it would have to wait.

After all, it was not my fault. I was a mere man and therefore deprived of that which enabled women to multitask.


My partner, on the other hand, would have to do all the housework and help the kids with their homework. Even as we switched off the lights at night, her amazing ability to multitask would continue, as she worried about what to wear the next day and how to find ways of pleasing me.

Again, it was not my fault that she had been blessed with the multitasking gene, which somehow enabled her to fit so much into the finite time she had.

That was the plan.

Now that I have sons and a daughter I know it would be remiss of me to perpetuate the nonsense that men or women have special abilities that members of the opposite sex do not have.


I cannot imagine my daughter being the partner of my younger self.

My sons will be adults in the 21st century and must shed the mentality that they have a one-track mind that renders them unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. They certainly will be multitasking in my house, just like their sister.

Women have an equal responsibility to revisit the idea that multitasking is in their blood. It might mean they can take on a lot simultaneously, but as leaders and managers it also diminishes their ability to delegate. These women often end up being surrounded by people who do not trust them.

In an ever-changing world, we have to think on our feet and think laterally. I cannot imagine any organization that hopes to thrive by accepting that only certain people can be trusted with doing more than one task at a time. And not because they are lousy at their work, but because the dice simply rolled unfortunately for them.


Of course, women can choose to believe that multitasking is their divinely given privilege. From where I sit, the beneficiaries of such a belief will be lazy and inept men, while women become superwomen.

I cannot speak for women, but in my experience, women of whom a lot is demanded become increasingly resentful and grumpy. And eventually, the quality of their work or their family life suffers.

You do not need a degree in medicine to know that unhappiness is infectious. And you certainly do not need an MBA to know that any organ-ization made up of sourpusses does not make for a great workplace.