Why are men 'polymaths' but women 'multitaskers'?

Next time you want to ask a woman how she 'manages to do it all', think again

Modern women are often expected to balance child care with professional responsibilities. Alamy
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It is nearly the end of the year – a time for annual round-ups and reflections. One that occurs to me is like a drumbeat that has been building in my life year on year, to the sound of a question that might be familiar to many women: “How do you manage to do it all?”

Often, my first answer is, I don’t really know. And that is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion: the questioner gains nothing, and I am left pondering over the nuts and bolts of how it all happens. Is it really just a mystery – that modern women are just having to be superhuman, and somehow summon an unnatural, inexplicable ability to multitask?

No, the true answer is I don’t “do it all”. The idea that I and other women do is, of course, a socially constructed idea – one that says we cope with some superhuman-level emotional and physical workload.

It’s the question that’s fundamentally flawed – especially when it comes to women. And we need to start shifting away from that paradigm of thinking. We are all, in fact, many things, and that is as it should be. No one is, or should be, limited to “just one thing”. I am a mum, a sandwich-generation carer, an advertising executive, an author, a press freedom board member, a podcaster, a wife, a social activist and more. I am, like everyone reading this, a polymath. Sometimes we are more one thing than another, but we are all many things in the end.

So why do we mystify the idea of being a polymath so much?

When we think of polymaths, most of us typically think of men (think “renaissance man”). Yet, when it comes to women, we call it “juggling” or “spinning plates” – something we struggle to do. It is as though even the idea that we can do – and excel in – more than one thing, as women, is mindboggling.

The US founding father Benjamin Franklin is widely lauded as one of history’s polymaths – a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, publisher and political philosopher. His daily diary is applauded for its rigour and focus. But I look at it and think, who in his life is handling childcare, looking after the elderly, cooking food and doing laundry?

It is as though even the idea that we can do - and excel in - more than one thing is mindboggling

Women are too rarely credited with having even one expertise – let alone multiple. If they do develop multiple expertises in the creative or professional worlds, they are all too often derided as big-headed and cut down to size. Their multitasking is unnatural (at least, to men), whereas the male polymath is a natural genius.

Sometimes, I have an existential crisis triggered by working in the advertising and branding industry, because we are told there that your personal brand should stand for “one thing”, or we work with companies to help them have a clearly defined “brand promise”.

I don’t have that singular “brand”. A lot of things keep me occupied. If I’m looking for brand consistency, what joins all of them together? The only answer I can come up with is: me. And the only way any of us can make sense of how many of us engage in a wide range of things is to establish a new norm: it is normal to be many things.

In fact, while we are on the subject of brands and businesses, one of the great modern challenges is that working in silos and specialised functions actually misses the fact that the opportunities of the future lie in places where different expertises intersect. Only when polymaths – and I use that now in the broadest, most inclusive sense possible – are allowed to run riot will new ideas emerge.

So when people ask me how I “manage to do it all”, instead of feeling stressed about it and wondering if I should talk about my “extraordinary drive” (because, you know, there are only so many hours in the day), or humble-bragging (because multitasking and multiple interests is just who I am), I am changing this conversation. We are all many things, and this is the normal state of affairs. We are all polymaths. And for women, let’s stop saying we are “juggling”. Instead, in 2024 you can adopt my new phrase and identify as a “polymath in progress”.

Published: December 22, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: December 24, 2023, 11:18 AM