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5 Great Women in Construction History

Lilian Gilbreth

Known as the woman of modern management and as ‘a genius in the art of living”, Lillian Gilbreth was one of the first working women engineers holding a Ph.D. She combined the perspectives of an engineer, a psychologist, a wife, and a mother of 12; she also became the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1926.

She was the co-author of multiple books with her husband, however, the publishers were concerned about her credibility as a female author (even though she had a doctorate while her husband never attended college) so she wasn’t named on the books.

Lillian Gilbreth was instrumental in the development of the modern kitchen and is credited for the invention of shelving in refrigerator doors and the foot-pedal garbage can. Lillian was also one of the first to consider stress and fatigue associated with workloads and time management.

She and her husband performed the time and motion study which is currently applicable to the improvement and upgrading of work systems. The Gilbreths are also recognized for their contribution to job simplification, job standardization and the innovations in workplace efficiency like improved lighting and regular breaks, etc.

In 1966, she won the Hoover Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers. She became the first female professor in the engineering school at Purdue University and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins was FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as cabinet secretary. This self-made woman was able to pave the way for many benefits offered to construction workers and she also defended the minimum wage and helped develop the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Frances also helped on developing the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and later the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the labor portion of the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

She also pushed to reduce workplace accidents and through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for the American workers and defined the standard forty-hour work week.

Kris Young​

Working her way through the ranks of the Associated General Contractors of America, in 2011 she became the first female president of the trade association.

Young boosted construction activity by enacting pro-growth tax and trade policies and making much-needed investments to the nation’s aging infrastructure. She continues to push for employee rights with her work in many committees such as the Labor Policy Committee and the EEO/DBE Advisory Council.

Mary Kenney O'Sullivan

With only a fourth grade education, Mary O’Sullivan learned early the importance of unions and worked tirelessly to improve factory conditions through unions.

She was the first woman AFL employed on full salary and she’s also the founder of the Women’s Trade Union League. Mary brought together professional, affluent, and working women to improve conditions in factories by promoting protective legislation such as minimum wage and tradeunionism among women.

Her work in unions has helped women in construction to this day find support and representation. O'Sullivan's work for women included not only union organization but voting rights as well.

Emily Roebling

Emily is known for her contribution to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, Washington Roebling became sick and she stepped in as the ‘first woman field engineer”.

Emily undertook multiple roles to ensure that her husband would remain the Chief Engineer despite his sickness. She took over the day-to-day supervision and project management, she dealt with politicians, competing engineers, she represented her husband at social functions and she saw out the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Eventually, rumors abounded that she was the actual Chief Engineer and that she was the real brains behind the bridge.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, Emily was the first one who rode with President Chester Arthur across the great bridge. At the dedication ceremony, a Roebling competitor, Abram Hewitt determined the bridge to be:

“an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”.

Today the Brooklyn Bridge holds a plaque dedicated to the memory of Emily, her husband, and her father-in-law, the Brooklyn Bridge designer.

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