Entering a Man’s World

Else Shepherd swiftly dealt with gender challenges to ‘control’ power in Queensland.

As an indication of the changed attitude to women in engineering, Engineers Australia named Else Shepherd the 2000 Queensland Professional Engineer of the Year. Yet when she joined the Institution committee in the 1960s, she could not attend their meetings, as they were held at the local Men’s Club.

Else Shepherd, one of Australia’s top 100 engineering leaders, oversaw the building, operation, and maintenance of the Queensland’s 1700 km high-voltage electricity transmission network from 1994 as the first Chair of Powerlink.

It seems a quaint story, but it perceptively outlines the barriers Shepherd and a handful of female engineering colleagues confronted as they emerged from University into the workforce. It seemed a logical career path: as a child, she was always drawn to maths and physics, so while she was encouraged by her father to pursue medicine, she chose her own path. Hence, Shepherd and another student were the first women to earn electrical engineering degrees from the University of Queensland, in 1965.

What she has achieved since belittles any conversation on gender: Shepherd has had an outstanding career as an operational researcher, teacher, entrepreneur, and major company chair. That’s a lengthy, winding path from her first job as a sugar industry process control engineer in Mackay, Queensland.

While teaching lured her to the Queensland Institute of Technology, she then co-founded a company specialising in the research and development of innovative communications, particularly custom-designed modems, and another making microwave filters using novel materials, including high-temperature superconductors and ceramics used in mobile phones.

Now highly respected in both academic and professional fields, Shepherd became Chair of Powerlink Queensland, a role she would hold for 17 years. Powerlink was established by the Queensland Government to oversee the State’s electricity transmission system following the break-up of the Queensland Electricity Commission.

From 1994, as the first Chair of Powerlink, she oversaw the building, operation, and maintenance of the State’s 1700 km high-voltage electricity transmission network. Shepherd also worked with the CEO on strategic issues and served as the company’s liaison to the Government as Powerlink assets grew from $1.4 billion to nearly $5.4 billion. Under her guidance, the firm developed a reputation as an early adopter of new technology and cost-effective practices.

For many years, she also sat on the National Electricity Market Management Company Board, the Brisbane City Works Advisory Board and the International Electrotechnical Commission Council Board, while holding directorships of a range of engineering companies, not-for-profit and music organisations.

Else Shepherd is currently Adjunct Professor and CEO in Residence in the Science and Engineering Faculty at QUT. Pictured with power engineering colleagues Professors Mahinda Vilathgamuwa and Gerard Ledwich at the Microgrid facility, QUT Gardens Point campus.

Shepherd received Engineering Australia’s 2007 Peter Nicol Russell Medal. She is currently Adjunct Professor and CEO in Residence in the Science and Engineering Faculty at QUT. She received an honorary doctorate from UQ as a role model for women in non-traditional fields and is an accomplished musician, conductor and co-founder of the Australian National Choral Association.

Republished with permission from Engineers Australia.

Researched and written by the Engineering Heritage Australia volunteers for the Engineers Australia centenary publication, Anything is possible: 100 Australian Engineering Leaders.

QUT Science & Engineering

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