Else Shepherd: Breaking Into the Boys' Club

This pioneering power engineer transcended social prejudices

7 June 2010
profile hoto: Matt Nager

Describing the negative attitude in Australia toward female engineers in the late 1960s, IEEE Member Else Shepherd recalls a dinner party where, upon finding out that she was an electrical engineer, the man sitting next to her blurted out, "Aren't you sorry for your husband?" The rude diner's misguided sympathy didn't deter Shepherd, who broke gender barriers and transcended social prejudices to become a pioneering engineer in the manufacturing and power sectors and academia.

She helped introduce computers to the country's sugar-processing industry and cofounded two high-tech start-ups. She is now chair of Powerlink Queensland, the state's transmission utility company, and a recently retired board member of the International Electrotechnical Commission, which sets global electro-technology standards.

Along the way, she collected 14 awards, including the 2009 University of Queensland Alumnus of the Year, bestowed in November, for her contributions to engineering.

Still, she says she'd exchange her suit for a lab coat any day: "Being on a board and having the ability to be influential haven't pleased me as much as working as an engineer and developing new devices."

Her favorite career memories date to when she was developing cutting-edge technology—such as her first job as a research engineer for the Sugar Research Institute, in Mackay, Queensland. There she helped streamline the transportation system bringing sugarcane into the mills so that less of the cane arrived stale.

"We introduced the mills to the concept of using computers for transportation control," she says. "This was in the late '60s. We had a computer the size of a room with only 16K of memory, but it was enough to make a difference in the scheduling system. It saved the mills a lot of money." The work earned Shepherd her first award: the 1972 President's Medal from the Australian Society of Sugar Cane Technologists.

Shepherd emigrated from South Africa with her family at age 12. As a child she was always drawn to math and physics. "In those days, if you were a girl interested in a career involving science, you either had to be really brilliant or become a teacher," she says. "My father thought I should go into medicine, but I wanted a profession that used math and physics."

Shepherd and another student were the first women to earn engineering degrees from the University of Queensland, in 1965.

Luckily, she didn't face bias at the Sugar Research Institute. "In the sugar industry, I had skills the men didn't have, so they were pleased to have me there," she says. But not everyone was so understanding.

"In those days, society deemed engineering an unacceptable line of work for women," she says. "At conferences, the men wouldn't eat lunch with me, and outside of work they had to be careful not to be too friendly with me, because I was perceived as a threat to their wives.

"When I told my hairdresser I was an engineer, she could hardly bear to cut my hair. But I just thought it was funny," she continues. "I enjoyed my work. I had kids and a supportive husband who was happy to have a wife with an interesting job. I just accepted early on that what I was doing was considered weird. But when I tell those stories today, kids think it's too bizarre for words."

In 1976, she became a manager at Batstone Hendry & Associates, where she oversaw process control systems, and she also began a part-time job, which she continues today, teaching math, physics, process control, electrical circuit theory, and telecommunications at various Queensland universities.

She went on to cofound two Brisbane-based high-tech start-ups: Mesaplexx (formerly Microwave & Materials Designs), a nine-year-old manufacturer of high-temperature superconductors for microwave filters used in mobile telephone systems, and the now-defunct Mosaic Information Technology, which developed digital signal-processing technology for the telecommunications industry in the mid-1980s.

Today, as the first female chair of Powerlink Queensland, Shepherd's duties include overseeing the six-member board of directors. The company builds, operates, and maintains the state's high-voltage electric grid. She also works with the CEO on strategic issues and serves as the company's liaison to the government. Under her 15-year guidance, Powerlink's revenues have grown from US $1.4 billion to nearly $5.4 billion. She has also helped the firm develop a reputation as an early adopter of new technology and cost-effective practices.

Shepherd's next move might be another start-up, one that involves metamaterials, artificially engineered substances containing properties not found in nature. That's if she can squeeze it in among her advisory work with various boards and encouraging the next generation of engineers through lectures and teaching.

"When I give talks to young engineers, I remind them that engineering is such interesting work and to rejoice in having a job that allows them to work on improving the world around them," she says. "Being an engineer really is a privilege."

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