Sue Murphy, CEO of the Water Corporation of Western Australia, talks about her experience as a woman in charge of a world class water utility.

You began with a career in engineering, which is considered a male field. What made you decide to take up the profession and get involved in the water sector?

I was good at math and science at school and my teachers and family wanted me to study medicine, but I had no desire to be a doctor. I chose engineering just to be annoying. It was 1975 and engineering was not seen as a “girl thing”.

As a woman engineer in the early 1980s working in the construction industry, I was perhaps a bit of a novelty. Following a long and full career with an Australian construction company, where I became CEO of worldwide minerals and infrastructure activities and first female board member, I decided to broaden my horizon and enter a critical public service industry within which I could help to shape our state’s future.

It must have been difficult being a woman engineer in the water sector. What challenges did you face?

In the 1980s, I was usually one of only a handful of women on most project sites and sometimes the only woman. I probably experienced discriminatory behaviour. As a young female project manager, I was also often mistaken for a secretary. 

"We often think it is unusual to have women leaders in the water sector in the developed world; yet in the developing world, water is very much women’s business. It is women's role to carry water to the home and maintain supply. It seems that if women get more technically competent, we feel it is unusual to have women in the sector, which of course is a flawed view. "

I also saw women being put down, discouraged, and ignored, not because they were poor at their jobs, but simply because that was the culture of the day. At a basic level, there were simply no facilities for women on many sites.

But I have always believed that you achieve more with a smile than a fight. I was lucky to work for and with very supportive men, but I found that concentrating on doing the best possible job removed many of these obstacles.

But that was a long time ago, and now in the modern water industry, I am greatly encouraged by the advances made in gender equality in what is now a men’s and women’s world.

And what advances are these?

Well, in our case, the Water Corporation’s recruitment of female graduates is a growth industry. At a recent Australian Association of Graduate Employers Conference, the Water Corporation was recognized as among the top five employers in Australia that attracts female engineers. It seems the attraction is partly a result of our flexible work practices, work-life balance, and the development opportunities we offer, but more importantly due to the nature of our work. We make a difference and are the enablers of any development that occurs anywhere in our huge state.

Just over one third of all our graduates, predominantly in engineering, are females, and I am confident that a number of these will go on to senior managerial level. It is just a matter of time.

But in terms of leadership, the global water sector is still a male-dominated field. Do you think there is more room for women’s leadership in the sector?

Yes, of course. We often think it is unusual to have women leaders in the water sector in the developed world; yet in the developing world, water is very much women’s business. It is women’s role to carry water to the home and maintain supply. It seems that if women get more technically competent, we feel it is unusual to have women in the sector, which of course is a flawed view.

There are also encouraging signs of increasing involvement of women at higher levels in the Australian water industry, which was once almost exclusively male turf.  In our state, a “CEOs for Gender Equity” group has been established. At the Water Corporation, we have women as Chairman and CEO, that’s myself, a Board member, and a General Manager and there is a good number of women at senior and middle management levels, and we have a “Women of Water” group that promotes discussion of women’s issues at work.

How would you advise young women who are starting out their careers in water?

Stay focused on doing your best possible job. Believe in yourself; learn to network; advance your training; actively pursue promotion; and maintain a sense of humor.


About the champion

Water Champion Sue Murphy is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Water Corporation of Western Australia.

With a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Western Australia in 1979, she joined Clough Engineering in 1980 and became the first woman to be appointed on the board of the Clough Engineering Ltd. in 1988.

In 2004, Sue joined the Water Corporation of Western Australia with responsibilities for delivery of capital projects and long and short term planning. In 2008, Sue was appointed CEO of the Water Corporation.

In 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, Sue was listed in the top 100 most influential engineers in Australia by Engineers Australia. She was also elected to join the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) in November 2009. In 2013, Engineers Australia named Sue Civil Engineer of the Year.

Sue is a Board Member of the University of WA Business School and Chairman of the Water Services Association of Australia. Sue is also Chairman of the Navy Clearance Diver Trust.

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