Else Shepherd AM FTSE Hon.FIEAust

 

Engineer, pianist, lecturer, Queensland Engineer Hall of Fame inductee, Member of the Order of Australia, Else Shepherd has had an illustrious career.

 

The term ‘pioneer’ can be overused these days but is entirely appropriate for Else who was one of the first female electrical engineers in Queensland, graduating with Honours from the University of Queensland in 1965.

After graduation she worked at the Sugar Research Institute in Mackay as an operation research engineer. She would go on to found companies, chair Powerlink, sit on the National Electricity Market Management Company Board, Brisbane City Works Advisory Board and the International Electrotechnical Commission Council Board and lecture at the University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University.

Aside from engineering, Else has made significant contributions to the arts in Queensland. In 1984 she studied choral conducting at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, receiving a Graduate Diploma in Music. She has been a choral conductor and director of arts organisations, including chair of the board of Camerata of St Johns, a professional string orchestra.

In 2021, one of the Cross River Rail tunnel boring machines was named in her honour; the latest recognition in an outstanding career.

BPEQ spoke with Else for International Women’s Day:

Cross River Rail has named its tunnel boring machines after pioneering engineer Else Shepherd AM Hon FIEAust and feminist Merle Thornton AM. Image source: Engineers Australia

1. What drew you to study and work in engineering, which at the time was a very male dominated field?

As a teenager I was fascinated first by bridges and later by space exploration. I remember standing in the garden with my Dad seeing the first Sputnik in the night sky and thinking, I want to be part of that.

I loved maths and science and engineering seemed the best direction for me.

 

2. What was it like and how did it feel to be one of the first two women to graduate in electrical engineering in Queensland?

The first couple of years at university were hard because the boys didn’t want us there.  But the final years were fine and I graduated looking forward to an exciting career as an engineer.

‘It is funny how attitudes change when you’re a needed and valuable resource.’
3. What was it like as one of two female engineers in Queensland at the time? Were there any barriers that you had to overcome?

The main difficulties were social.  In 1965, as a married woman, I was not expected to work, especially not in a male-dominated field and especially not in factories in the sugar industry. I recognised that it was difficult for my male colleagues to have a woman working with them.  Everyone today talks about the importance of mentors, but this is a modern concept.  I had no mentor.

I overcame work barriers by becoming proficient at skills that were needed in the sugar industry.  It is funny how attitudes change when you’re a needed and valuable resource.

 

4. You have received many accolades throughout your career, including forming two companies, sitting on the boards of many organisations, lecturing at universities, and even receiving a Graduate Diploma of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium. Throughout your extensive career what have been your greatest engineering and non-engineering achievements?

That’s too difficult a question! In engineering I was especially pleased to be awarded the Peter Nicol Russell Medal and to be made an Honorary Fellow of Engineers Australia. In music, for some years I was a board member and then chair of Camerata of St Johns, a professional string orchestra.  I played a large part in the early days of building up the orchestra to become a leading ensemble in the Australian professional music scene.

 

5. As one of the first two women in Queensland to graduate in electrical engineering, you paved the way for others. What advice would you give to aspiring engineers who want to break the status quo or overcome certain barriers?

Don’t accept that there are barriers. Just forge ahead but be good at what you do. Have a sense of humour and be forgiving.

‘Don’t accept that there are barriers. Just forge ahead but be good at what you do.’
6. If you were able to go back in time and tell your soon-to-be-graduated-self one thing, what would that be?

Keep enjoying the company of your girlfriends.  They can be your best support.

 

7. Currently, just over seven percent of Registered Professional Engineers are female, while the estimated percentage across the profession sits at 12 percent. What do you think needs to be done to attract more women to a career in engineering?

More visible role models would help a great deal.  They must be visible to school children of all ages and to society in general, particularly to mothers.  More discussion in school classrooms about engineering would make a big difference.  “Science” is a common word in schools but “engineering” isn’t.

Click below to visit the International Women’s Day website

 

International Women’s Day