HCBE Faculty Articles


Viewing the Work of Lillian M. Gilbreth through the Lens of Critical Biography

Document Type




Publication Title

Journal of Management History








Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the significant contributions of Lillian M. Gilbreth through the lens of critical biography to put her work in the context of her life events, her key roles, the turning points in her life and the societal context within which her contributions to management thought were made. Design/methodology/approach – Critical biography examines the interaction of a person’s life events with the social, economic and political contexts surrounding his or her life and draws inferences as to why the person made specific decisions and contributions. Findings – Key contributions to management thought made by Lillian M. Gilbreth are linked to her biographical events, including the multiple roles she played as daughter, student, wife, mother, author, engineer, psychologist, breadwinner, domestic scientist and teacher. Various turning points in her life are identified, including being allowed to go to college, taking her first psychology course, marrying Frank Gilbreth, publishing Fatigue Studies and Frank’s death. Key societal factors that influenced Gilbreth’s contributions were the growing interest in scientific management, the status of women and the increased interest in domestic science. Research limitations/implications – The qualitative technique of critical biography is demonstrated as a useful methodology for examining individual contributions to management history. The authors acknowledge the limitation of subjective interpretation. Practical implications – The reasons behind Lillian Gilbreth’s contributions, which were considered a precursor to the human relations era, are extrapolated from this research. Social implications – The influence of social context is examined, as it pertains to the life and work of Lillian Gilbreth. Originality/value – This paper provides a critical biography of Lillian M. Gilbreth and her work within the context of her life and times.

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