Urban legend suggests that women are better at multi-tasking than men. This idea is bolstered, in part, by anthropologists who suggest that in hunter/gather times women were required to take care of many things at once (watch the children, gather food, prepare and cook meals, etc.) whereas men tended to be more focused on a single-task such as hunting.
So are there gender differences in the dual-task combination of driving and talking on a cell phone?
To address this issue, we performed a meta-analysis of dual-task studies that we have done in my lab over the last decade. In this analysis, we included over one thousand subjects, roughly half male and half female. The age ranges were from 16 to 86 and participants were recruited from high schools, the University, and from local newspaper advertisements.
We focused on brake reaction time, because we have found it to be one of the most sensitive measures in detecting differences associated with multi-tasking. What did we find?
Braking reactions were substantially slower when our participants were talking on a cell phone. However, there was no difference in the ability of males and females to multi-task. That is, the increase in brake reaction time when drivers were talking on a cell phone was the same for men and women. We also looked at a number of other measures of driving performance and found no differences between men and women when they were multi-tasking.
This does not preclude the possibility that women are better at multi-tasking than men in other situations. For example, driving and talking on a cell phone are relatively new tasks that are quite unlike the activities performed in hunter/gather times. But when it comes to driving and talking on a cell phone, women are as bad at it as men.