Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972) was a successful doctorate and remarkable jill of all trades—the first woman to become a professor of engineering at Purdue University, in 1935!
She was born in Oakland, California, in 1878 and was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Industrial Psychology from Brown University in 1915. Gilbreth was a pioneer in applying the principles of psychology to industrial management, particularly in the areas of time and motion studies, workplace efficiency, and human factors engineering.
Gilbreth was particularly interested in the way that motion and time interacted in the workplace, and she developed new methods for analyzing and improving work processes. Her work led to significant improvements in workplace efficiency and productivity. Her end goal was to increase employee well-being and job satisfaction.
Additionally, she invented numerous household staples, such as fridge shelves, the foot-pedal trash bin, and an early electric mixer. On top of all of her achievements, she also had 12 children throughout her life. Talk about a busy bee who also led a healthy home life!
“What is there in the subject of psychology to demand the attention of the manager?”
Her work spanned many domains, including IO psychology, ergonomics, industrial design, teaching, and engineering. She was the first woman to recieve the Hoover Award, which was to celebrate the non-technical humanitarian efforts in engineers. In 1984, she was also the first psychologist, as a woman, to appear on a postage stamp in the United States.
“I think we all…should always be on the lookout for new leaders, for young people with a new slant on things.”
Later on, Gilbreth taught engineering courses at Rutgers University. With her hard work and relentless dedication to the field of IO psychology, she was appointed as professor of management at Purdue University in 1935. Fast forward to 1964, she was the resident lecturer at MIT. Talk about an interesting and wildly successful career from engineering to management consulting.
Industrial-Organizational (IO) Psychology Contributions
Gilbreth noticed cracks in Taylor’s scientific management concept, as it had failed to recognize individual needs at work. She emphasized that the happiness and perspectives of the workers themselves mattered more than their output. In 1914, she published her dissertation, The Psychology of Management, as a book.
In the field of IO psychology, Gilbreth made various contributions:
- Development of time and motion studies, which involve analyzing work tasks to identify the most efficient ways to complete them.
- Advancement of human factors engineering, which involves designing workspaces and equipment to fit the needs and abilities of workers.
- Mentoring of aspiring engineers and managers, and contribution to the development of the profession.
- Implementation of innovative training and development programs for workers.
- Emphasis on the importance of job satisfaction and employee well-being in workplace design and management.
Some of Gilbreth’s most notable published works are: The Quest for the One Best Way: A Sketch of the Life of Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1930), Applied Motion Study: A Collection of Papers on the Efficient Method to Industrial Preparedness (1917); The Home-maker and Her Job (1927); Management in the Home (1954); and As I Remember (1952).
Final Thoughts on Lillian Gilbreth
A true Renaissance woman, Lillian Gilbreth pioneered various concepts and contributed the Industrial Revolution of America. She believed a worker’s ability to be productive was directly tied to safety and comfort—which has largely been proven to hold true years later. Gilbreth’s story remains relatively quiet in the world of women and STEM, and should be celebrated louder.
Her work revolutionized the way that workplaces were organized and managed, and she’s credited with developing many of the basic principles of modern industrial engineering and management. She’s helped hundreds—perhaps even thousands of—engineers, students, and homemakers excel in their roles and find lasting satisfaction.
As a writer and speaker, Gilbreth was a gifted communicator who was able to distill complex concepts into practical, easy-to-understand advice. Her books and articles continue to be influential today, and her ideas and methods have been adapted and refined to suit modern workplaces.
Gilbreth was also a dedicated advocate for women’s rights and promoted equal opportunities for women in the workplace. Her commitment to promoting equal opportunities for women in the workplace was ahead of its time. She essentially helped pave the way for generations of female engineers and managers.
Overall, Lillian Gilbreth was a trailblazer whose legacy continues to inspire and inform those working in industrial engineering, management, and psychology. Her work exemplified the power of applying scientific principles to practical problems, and her tireless dedication to improving the lives of workers and their families is a testament to her enduring impact.
Gibson, Jane & Clayton, Russell & Deem, Jackie & Einstein, Jacqueline & Henry, Erin. (2014). Contributions of Lillian M. Gilbreth to Management Theory through the Context of Critical Biography. Academy of Management Proceedings. 2014. 11587-11587. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMBPP.2014.11587abstract.
Graham, Laurel. (2000). Lillian Gilbreth and the mental revolution at Macy’s, 1925-1928. Journal of Management History (Archive). 6. 285-305. https://doi.org/10.1108/13552520010359306.
Graham, Laurel. (2013). Lillian Gilbreth’s psychologically enriched scientific management of women consumers. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/JHRM-02-2013-0009.
Greenlees, Janet. (2005). Making Time: Lillian Moller-Gilbreth — A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen” (review). Enterprise & Society. 6. 328-330.
Lawley, Scott & Caven, Valerie. (2019). Lillian Moller Gilbreth. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429279652-4.