Women in Psychology Famouse Women Psychologists Famous Psychologists Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Moller Gilbreth was an inspirational woman, and years after her death, she continues to inspire many people, especially women. Lillian Gilbreth was the mother of twelve children, a devoted wife, and one of many pioneers in the field of psychology. She also worked closely with husband Frank to implement methods for rehabilitating injured service men so they could return to work. They wanted to help the soldiers to retain their dignity, and live a productive lifestyle. Although she is possibly best known for her pioneering work in the field of industrial psychology, Gilbreth’s greatest pride was her work with the soldiers.

Gilbreth collaborated on many projects with her husband Frank. “After the Gilbreths moved to Rhode Island, she finished a second doctorate at Brown University” (Goodwin, 2008).Together they ran a consulting business, and it was her expertise in a particular field of psychology now known as industrial and organizational psychology, that she is probably best remembered. Lillian and Frank discovered new techniques to enable workers to achieve tasks more effectively. Despite her initial plans to become a teacher, Lillian excelled in the field of scientific management, and went on to publish several books. One such book was The Psychology of Management was published around 1915. Lillian and Frank Gilbreth sold their construction business  and focused on consulting. Lillian also became known for her research in effective kitchen design and household management systems.

During their years together, Frank and Lillian employed various techniques to manage the day-to-day running of their own household. Children were given chores, records were kept, and Frank and Lillian, through careful observation, guided the children as they carried out tasks around the home. In later years, these sometimes-amusing antics were published in a now famous book, Cheaper by the Dozen, which was written by two of the Gilbreth children (Webster, n.d.)

In 1925, Frank Gilbreth suffered a heart attack and died (Goodwin, 2008), so Lillian’s ideas about management in the home not only helped other homemakers, they also helped her to manage her brood of one dozen children.

Gilbreth became a pioneer in the field of ergonomics, the study of how systems and products can be made most efficient for human use. Her ideas included the redesign of household tasks, based on her own ample experiences. For instance, she became largely responsible for modern kitchen design, and pop-up trash cans and side-door shelves for refrigerators are among her innovations (Perloff & Naman, 1996). She was also a major force in helping people with physical handicaps become productive citizens—she considered this her most important work (Goodwin, p.285)

Lillian Gilbreth worked tirelessly on many projects over the years. She taught management techniques to private individuals; she worked as an in-house consultant and trained executives for many large corporations, and worked on government and military projects during the depression and during wartime. Gilbreth conducted much of her work from her home so she could simultaneously maintain her role as an active and successful, single parent. Lillian Gilbreth was also a teaching professor at several prestigious universities over the years.Gilbreth’s book, The Psychology of Management contains detailed and insightful information and techniques on worker productivity, management, measuring systems and teaching techniques. Another notable area of interest included in the book, is one that continues to be a source of fascination and interest for Industrial/Organizational psychologists to this day, and that is, incentives. Every organization must utilize incentives as motivation for worker productivity as well as employee health and safety. The ability to get a job done safely and effectively is not only useful for the company, it also helps to protect and encourage lower level workers from mental and physical fatigue.

In The Psychology of Management, incentives are referred to as “that which moves the mind or stirs the passions; that which incites or tends to incite to action; motive, spur” ref (Gilbreth, 1915). Lillian speaks of direct and indirect incentives, and the role of rewards and punishments. Punishments too, can be an incentive according to Lillian, but only properly designed punishments. For example, if there is a reward/punishment incentive involved, and a worker does not meet his goal, a punishment might be delivered. However, if the punishment causes the worker to cease future efforts altogether, then the punishment was not an effective incentive at all, and the therefore, a new and more effective punishment needs to be implemented (Gilbreth, 1915).

Punishment can take one form or another, according to Gilbreth. A punishment can be administered by withholding something, or punishment can be given by delivering something. In the later case, being demoted would be called a positive punishment. Incentives do indeed, cause a rise or decline in worker productivity and organizational advancement. Punishments and rewards are known as indirect incentives, whereas a direct incentive might be recognition for a job well done, and the feeling of pride for having accomplished a task.

Any person who has researched motivation methods in the workplace will also be aware of another interesting phenomenon discussed in Gilbreth’s The Psychology of Management, and that is, “Rewards Possible of Attainment by all” (Gilbreth, 1915). Under Scientific Management procedures, every person, regardless of his role or his status as a worker, has an equal chance of earning or winning a reward. In publications from more recent years, a similar process is mentioned during the goal setting process.

When organizations set goals, the workers, on all levels are then informed of the goals and asked to set personal, attainable goals that are aligned with those from upper management. In doing so, each person is assured that they will be able to attain a goal of their own, and management can be satisfied knowing that goals achieved by management and staff on all levels will contribute to the overall goal set by the organization. Gilbreth’s system of scientific management was certainly designed for today’s organizational needs, as well as for the time in which it was written. A sad irony is to be noted, however. Gilbreth’s extraordinary work on her book, The Psychology of Management had been written as a doctoral dissertation during her first attempt at earning her Ph.D. Unfortunately, she was not awarded her doctoral degree at that time because she had not completed some of the residency requirements. Her Ph.D., in Industrial Psychology, and the first of its kind, was later awarded by Brown University in 1915. (Goodwin, 2008).

Lillian Gilbreth’s success was not only a wonderment of her day; it is also an inspiration for many women today. When asked about combining marriage, children and work, Gilbreth responded by saying that with the support and faith of a good husband, it is possible to be both a successful professional as well as a competent homemaker (Koppes, 1997, p.504). Lillian Gilbreth was not just a pioneer in the field of Industrial and Organization Psychology; she must also be considered a cornerstone in the ongoing battle for discrimination and equal rights.

As well as her work in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Gilbreth worked extensively with people who suffered both physical and mental handicaps –“she considered this her most important work” (Goodwin, 2008). One such project Lillian and her husband Frank worked passionately was rehabilitating soldiers so they could return to the workplace. Frank and Lillian’s extensive research into motion prompted more research about how to match a worker and a job, while making the most of the injured veteran’s current abilities to perform certain tasks. Furthermore, they argued that the government should not only attempt to heal the wounds of those injured in action, but also provide programs to retain the disabled. Employers were to cooperate by hiring the handicapped. Frank and Lillian wanted employers to realize that handicapped did not mean helpless, it meant capable, providing that the right training was available (Gotcher, 1982).

Lillian Gilbreth’s groundbreaking work in industrial psychology has carried on into organizations around the world today, and her professional collaboration with husband, Frank, continues to benefit millions of people around the world. Lillian Gilbreth: mother, wife, scientist, humanitarian, and teacher, passed away in 1972. She was ninety-four years old.


Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Gotcher, J. (1992). Assisting the Handicapped: The Pioneering Efforts of Frank and Lillian  

     Gilbreth. Journal of Management, 18(1), 5. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Koppes, L.L. (1997). American Female Pioneers of Industrial and Organizational Psychology During the Early Years. Journal of

     Applied Psychology 1997, Vol. 82, No. 4, 500-515. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Gilbreth, L. (1915). The Psychology of Management. 1914, BY THE MACMILLAN   COMPANY, New York.

Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society.(n.d). LILLIAN MOLLER GILBRETH. Retrieved June 14, 2011,

     from http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/gilbreth2.html