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LILLIAN MOLLER GILBRETH (1878–1972)
NAE election, 1965: “Motion study and management engineer.”
Lillian Gilbreth was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Other firsts included her selection in 1900 as the first woman commencement speaker at the University of California (speech title: “Life: A Means or an End”), author of the first book to combine psychology with elements of management theory (1914), first recipient (1931) of the Gilbreth Medal created by the Society of Industrial Engineers, and America’s first female engineering professor (in 1935 at Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering).
In addition, in 1911 she introduced the concept of using psychology to study management, at the Dartmouth College Conference on Scientific Management, and she pioneered what is now known as industrial and organizational psychology, helping industrial engineers and managers recognize the importance of the psychological dimensions of work.
She combined psychological understanding and efficiency improvement, applying the principles of scientific management to household tasks and kitchen design, streamlining and facilitating so that women might have time available to seek paid employment outside the home. She is credited with the invention of the foot-pedal trash can, the addition of shelves to refrigerator doors (including the butter tray and egg keeper), and wall-light switches. (It’s worth noting that, with 12 children of her own, she had personal motivation to make housework easier and less time consuming.)
Gilbreth and her husband were equal partners in their engineering and management consulting firm, which she led for decades after his death in 1924. They conducted time-and-motion studies and developed a new technique using a motion-picture camera to record work processes. The filmed observations enabled the redesign of machinery to better suit workers’ movements to improve efficiency and reduce fatigue, establishing the precursor to ergonomics. The Gilbreths’ human approach to management enhanced both workplace efficiency, with better lighting and regular breaks, and psychological well-being, with suggestion boxes and free books, novel concepts in their day.
Her PhD thesis, The Psychology of Management: The Function of the Mind in Determining, Teaching and Installing Methods of Least Waste, was published under the name L.M. Gilbreth to conceal her gender, at the insistence of the publisher. In fact, because of publishers’ concerns about a female writer, she is less frequently credited in joint publications than her husband, who did not go to college.
She was married to Frank Bunker Gilbreth and had 12 children. (The book Cheaper by the Dozen was written by two of her children about their family.)
Education: BA (1900; Phi Beta Kappa) and master’s (1902), both in literature, University of California, Berkeley; PhD in applied psychology, Brown University, 1915.