woman multitasking
How does she do it? It must be the oestrogen iStock

Women appear to be better at multitasking to men as a result of sex hormones, scientists have discovered. In a study where men and women were asked to walk while undertaking a tricky language task, women under 60 vastly outperformed men, suggesting oestrogen in the prefrontal cortex plays a role in this ability.

Previous research on gender ability, when it comes to multitasking, has proven inconclusive. While one study from China indicated women were better, another in Sweden showed the opposite. In 2013, a team of UK psychologists found men were slower and less organised when it came to switching between tasks, but key questions relating to how, why and whether different types of multitasking played a role remained.

In a study published in the Royal Society Open Science, researchers tested men and women of different ages on their ability to perform a locomotive and cognitive task at the same time. The team, from Switzerland and Germany, asked healthy volunteers to walk on a treadmill while performing the Stroop test.

The Stroop effect test is a word/colour naming task that primarily involves the left hemisphere of the brain. In it, participants are asked to name the colour of a word, rather than the word itself.

Researchers note that when people walk, humans tend to swing their arms – particularly their right arms. While this is partially related to muscle control, more recent research has shown it is related to brain centres, including the cortex. Furthermore, when they are asked to complete cognitive tasks while walking, their arm swinging becomes asymmetrical.

Sexism linked to the brain
Findings showed men performed worse in multitasking test JakeOlimb/iStock

To investigate this phenomenon, the team suggested it could be to do with interference in the brain – with arm swimming asymmetry being compromised for carrying out the mental task at hand.

They recorded changes to the right arm swings of the participants and found asymmetry emerged most prominently among men of all ages and women over the age of 60. This unexpected result, they said, could indicate gender differences in the brain's ability to carry out a "locomotor-cognitive dualtask" – or put more simply, to multitask.

"Women under 60 are surprisingly resistant to this effect," they wrote. "Overcoming this interference appears to be a trait unique to younger females and implies significant gender differences at the top of the hierarchical chain of locomotor control."

Scientists said the "unexpected and pronounced resistance to right arm swing attenuation in pre-menopausal women" could be related to oestrogen in the prefrontal cortex (PFT), adding that "targeting of the left PFC with oestrogen therapy or transcranial magnetic stimulation may improve motor control in elderly fallers and patients with gait instability".