The story of a woman going head to head with men


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2015)

Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is probably the most successful technology entrepreneur in the world. However, few know that. In the 1960s, she established a pioneering software company that employed female staff only. That was the start of a career that remains unique to this day. Dame Stephanie Shirley – an exceptionally courageous woman who has defied all prejudice and made a profession out of her passion thus paving the way for women worldwide to lead a self-determined life.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, in 1962 you founded ‘Freelance Programmers,’ a software company. What was your motivation to do so?

Dame Stephanie Shirley: I’d hit the glass ceiling too often!  Freelance Programmers was a crusade for women. I wanted to offer intellectual work opportunities to women who were leaving the nascent computer industry on marriage or when their first child was expected.  What a waste of women’s skills.

If you think back to the time before coding became widely automated ‒ what challenges had to be mastered?

Dame St. S.: In the early days, we worked with pencil and paper developing flowcharts defining each task to be done. We then wrote the program, usually in machine code, sometimes in binary.  This was then sent to a data centre to be punched onto paper tape or card; then repunched to verify it; all this prior to submission to the mainframe computer.  Our schedules were based on two turnarounds a week. The challenges were dealing with all the detail; with getting the timings right if the peripherals were unbuffered; with meticulous compression into too-small storage.  But if you liked that sort of thing (as I did) it was great.  I could not believe that I could be paid so well for doing something so enjoyable.

What were the prejudices you faced at the beginning and why did you go under the name of Steve during that time?

Dame St. S.: Software at that time was given away free with the hardware.  So people laughed. No-one can sell software. And certainly not for a woman’s company!  I responded to every job advertisement for programmers by offering my company’s services.  But, signed with that double feminine Stephanie Shirley, they all seemed to finish up in the recipient’s waste paper basket.  My husband suggested that I use the family nickname of Steve.  And the same letter, signed by Steve Shirley, got some responses.  So I was through that door and shaking hands before they realised that “he” was a “she”.

You employed only women in the early days of your company and created opportunities for mums wishing to work. Which societal changes were you trying to set in motion?

Dame St. S.: I was battling for women to have the right to work and the right for equal pay.  When handsome young men offered to carry my equipment for me, I used to reply tetchily, “I believe in equal pay and will carry my own equipment”.  Nowadays, it would be “How kind.  Thank you so much”.  In particular, I was seeking part-time, flexible opportunities for women working from home.

How did your attitude influence the industry and population?

Dame St. S.: We were inundated by female applicants – we used to ask them, “Do you have access to a telephone?” Who would have thought that the software for the black box flight recorder for supersonic Concorde was developed by a bunch of women working in their own homes?  Major conventional employers began to see that they were missing out by ignoring the skills of half the population.  Gradually they began to offer more flexible opportunities. One or two copied us.  For example, the British computer manufacturer ICL set up a homeworking subsidiary.  But it didn’t really take off big time.

A few years later, you renamed your company to F. International Group. Why and what was the deeper meaning behind the letter F?

Dame St. S.: Freelance Programmers was a meaningless collection of letters when we started trading internationally.  A survey showed us that potential British customers viewed freelancers as amateurs.  So the F linked us to our history and people began to think it meant female.  

With the introduction of the ‘Sex Discrimination Act’ in 1975, you were suddenly obliged to employ men, too. How did this affect your company’s philosophy?

Dame St. S.: You would have thought every woman in the company would have welcomed that legislation.  And we did.  But we were forced to change our employment policies and – gradually – the company became well balanced between men and women.  Which is as it should be.  The family-friendly mode of operating continued; the team-working morphed into a collegiate house style that was later reinforced by co-ownership.

What is your advice for women who are trying to succeed in male-dominated industries today?

D. St. S.: Let sexism roll off you.  Make sure you remain always totally professional.  Insist that your manager judges you by the same criteria as your male colleagues. Ensure you contribute fully to the organisation’s success.  Whatever your role, make sure that you master marketing and finance.

What would you tell your male colleagues?

Dame St. S.: Keep away from domestic gossip.  Use humour to defuse tension.

What role does design play for a software to become a success? 

Dame St. S.: All engineering is design. Software engineering is no different. One refers to “elegance”.

What opportunities does information technology hold? Where will it go in the future?

Dame St. S.: All business is now in IT.  It is going to be all internet based very shortly.

In your book “Let IT go – The Memoirs of Dame Stephanie Shirley” you describe the personal and professional obstacles you have had to overcome these past years. Which events were particularly important and what strengths did you gain from them?

Dame St. S.: My childhood departure from Germany in 1933 and being sent by the Kindertransport to England in 1939 made a deep impression on me. I learnt that basic lesson that tomorrow is always different.  Which forced me to deal with change, indeed eventually to welcome change.  And that was useful in my hi-tech career.

As Britain’s leading philanthropist, you passionately invest in projects for the greater good. What initiatives are you currently involved with and what is the motivation for you standing up for others?

Dame St. S.: I was given so much as a child, what else can I do but give back?  Giving has made my hard-earned wealth significant. It links me to the future. I am so lucky to have something to get up for each morning. I am fortunate to have the energy and believe that if you don’t commit, you are just taking up space. All my philanthropy has been innovative and strategic.  There are two things I know and care about: IT, my professional discipline; and autism, my late son’s disorder.

What encounter most recently enchanted you and why?

Dame St. S.: I spoke at the Weiner Stadtgespräch in February and took the opportunity of seeing the wonderful paintings of Klimt.

Kindly tell us one thing Dame Stephanie Shirley would never like to do without: 

Dame St. S.: I believe age is not how you look but rather how you behave.  To continue working as I do, I would not like to be without my regular swimming sessions.


Picture credits © Dame Stephanie Shirley

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