International Women’s Day is 8 Mar 2021. A month ago we also had the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 Feb 2021. When I was researching for my article Women-in-STEM, I came across a name I had never heard of : Lillian Gilbreth, psychologist and industrial engineer.
She was focussed on making work more efficient. For example, her own kitchen was enormous. It was designed for a household with three or four servants working in the kitchen. The sink, pantry, stove, dishes and refrigerator were all 6-12 metres apart. Even when her husband was alive, when her family was relatively affluent, they only had one cook. The sink was so low it hurt your back to do the washing up. She redesigned the kitchen layout that we now take for granted, where we don’t have to take more than a few steps to get to everything we need for food preparation. She also worked on the ergonomics for wheelchair users. The US government used her motions of the disabled to help rehabilitate amputees.
She died in 1972, but her legacy lives on in many things in our homes, eg foot-pedal on bins, egg-holders and shelves on refrigerators and electric food-mixers. You may have heard of Cheaper by the Dozen, the movie. She is, in fact, the mother of the twelve children. The movie is based on the book by the same name. The book, sadly, does not tell us very much about the mother. It was more about life in the household with their larger-than-life father, Frank Gilbreth. Lillian Gilbreth was mentioned from time to time, in a one-dimensional way. This befitted the era where women were seen and not heard. The sequel to the book, Belles on their Toes, gave us more of an insight into her role in the family. She was a widowed mother with children all under the age of nineteen. She was determined to realise her late-husband’s wish to put all eleven children through college. She was the bread-winner in a time when career women were almost unheard of. Even from the book covers alone, you can see the bias. Cheaper by the Dozen was about living their father while he was alive. Belles on their Toes was about living with their mother after he died. The first book had all pictures of all twelve children. The authors and title were clearly printed. The second book, however, was forgettable. The title and authors’ name was stuck on the spine. As for the cover, they could have used a generic gift-wrapping paper.
Despite the head-winds, through perseverance, resourcefulness and creativity, Lillian Gilbreth succeeded in seeing all her children through education, and earned herself several distinguished honours.
She is a real-life version of Mrs Dabble and Dr Patsy Gerlaxy in The Magic Mixer. Mrs Dabble’s three children are a handful, and like Lillian Gilbreth, she is determined to solve the problem. Failures are simply ways not to do them. The Magic Mixer is not just about a machine. It is a book about two women in STEM, a scientist and an engineer, two women who worked together and created a machine that leaves a legacy in this world.
May it make a small contribution to inspiring the next generation of women trail-blazers.