As we celebrate International Women’s Day and its theme of #BalanceforBetter, we focus on a lady who has been striving for this for most of her life. Her achievements are huge and reflected in the many honours she has been awarded a summary of which include: OBE, the Freedom of the City of London, the first female President of the British Council, the Mountbatten Medal, Dame Commander of the British Empire, Beacon Fellowship Prize, assessed as one of the most 100 powerful women in the UK by Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, listed as one of the top 50 scientists by the Science Council, a Fellow of the Computer History Museum, awarded the Companion of Honour Award and also renowned as an entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Born in 1933, Dame Stephanie Shirley is an information technology pioneer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. As Hitler and the Nazi party grew in power and things became more turbulent as they began to flex their muscle, Dame Stephanie was evacuated from Austria aged 5 on the Kindertransport to England, leaving her parents behind. Being separated from her parents at a critical stage of her life affected the natural bonding and relationship one could have expected.
“Well, because we were separated I was never really close to either of my birth parents but we did talk about intimate things from time to time, but we never spoke about that. I regret enormously that I never bonded with my birth parents. Because I was a refugee I don’t have any material things from the past but neither do I have that relationship that I could build on from my parents. I was very lucky with my foster parents and I am their child in all but birth.”
From an early age Dame Stephanie had an interest in Maths but being a female this was not a subject that would have been normal for girls to study. She had to change schools twice ending up at a boys’ school which she herself describes as “a useful forerunner for sexism in the workplace.”
In the 1950’s Dame Stephanie worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill for 8 years building computers and writing code in machine language. Dame Stephanie recollects this as a happy time and one where she met her husband, physicist, Derek Shirley. But this was an environment where few women worked and where Dame Shirley first encountered sexism.
“There were very few women there so I first experienced sexism in a serious way but I learned enormously and I love to learn. I was working with bright people; sometimes I didn’t quite know what I was doing because it was all very esoteric science but it didn’t really matter because I met my husband at the Post Office and we celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary this year.”
In 1959, she moved to CDL Ltd which was a completely different experience to the Post Office, sharing ideas here, for example, was a less formal affair, done over coffee in the canteen. Despite this enlightened approach, sexism was still engrained in the workplace and having reached the glass ceiling, the recently married Dame Stephanie founded her business, Freelance Programmers, with just £6 of capital. Not only did Freelance Programmers intend to charge for software (usually given away free with hardware) and to offer fixed prices, but it would be written exclusively by women. Employing women who at the time were expected to stay at home to look after their children was as important to Dame Stephanie as the programming projects they undertook. Notable projects include working on the programming of Concorde’s Blackbox.
“Most people start business to make money, I didn’t it was a crusade for women. I was just sick and tired of the sexism in the workplace, I had worked in a large government department, I’ve worked in a small entrepreneurial company and in both I was feeling blocked and hitting the glass ceiling. So I decided to start a company that is friendly to women and was a company I would want to work for. I measure it in terms of how many women we employed rather than the bottom line as to how much profit we made.”
In building her business Dame Stephanie still had sexist attitudes to overcome which required adopting some crafty strategies, two she shared with us, firstly to sign her letters Steve Shirley to get a foot in door, and secondly, playing a recording of people typing to mask any noise of children, her own son Giles being born one year after Freelance Programmers had been founded.
“I think in business there are quite a few ways in which you dissemble in order to put your best foot forward all the time. The one I’d like to talk about is that we worked very much on the telephone and I was working from home and when a client called, to disguise the baby noises in the background, I had an old fashioned tape recorder running with the sound of someone typing very, very fast in the background so that it sounded as if I was in an office. Is that dishonest? I don’t think so – I was just trying to project the professionalism that we did actually provide. The fact that we were consistently professional – and I don’t think that ever really slipped – made a difference and we were eventually accepted.”
Running a business and being a mum is still challenging today, so one can appreciate the difficulties in the early 1960’s of setting up and running a female only business, however for Dame Stephanie things could not have been more difficult when aged 3 her son Giles was diagnosed with autism. As her son grew he also developed severe epilepsy and Dame Stephanie regularly had to deal with tantrums as her son lashed out. Life was a continual struggle and the family were often at breaking point with their son. Giles being at the lowest end of the autism spectrum, could not speak, would never function autonomously and would always be dependent on others’ care.
As Giles got older he grew stronger and his rages also became stronger and more alarming. The strain of running her business and dealing with Giles became too much and in the summer of 1976 Dame Stephanie suffered a mental breakdown.
“I’m a very stubborn person and I was not going to fail because of domestic responsibilities and so the determination not to have women looking foolish, not to have me look foolish really kept me going through difficult times. A lot of people will be surprised that I was able to build up what became a very successful business the same time as rearing a very difficult child however the two complemented each other for many years – but eventually I couldn’t take it any more I wasn’t functioning and I had a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown. So I always say to women to get help or else, as happened to me, the whole issue gets on top of you and nobody enjoys life and nobody gets anywhere.
I do wonder what we mean by success. Rearing a family is also a successful route and if you can combine it with the corporate world as I did, then that’s ideal.”
Dame Stephanie often talks about having feelings of survivors’ guilt, which drive her to try to make sure she’s lived a life worthy of saving and, regardless of how you measure success, in raising a family or in the corporate world, her achievement with Freelance Programmers is huge. With capital of £6 she developed a business that floated on the stock market for £150 million while raising an autistic child.
It is very sad that Giles died aged 35 but Dame Stephanie has found comfort in helping others with autism. She has in fact given away £67 million through her philanthropic work and key amongst this is support for children and adults with autism.
“By the time the company was sold, and it was certainly not my decision about a quarter of it was owned by the staff, I still had about 15% which was worth £150 million which was significant money to anybody – what could I do with that? I had already made arrangements to care for my very vulnerable autistic son and we were not going to have a yacht and sail around the world. The quality of my husband and my life was to have a choice as to what we spend our time on and in the main these are not material things.
There are only so many hot dinners you can have and I hope that I would always have been a liberal but I was given so much myself as a child that it seemed almost inevitable that I should give back and I have so enjoyed my philanthropic world.”
It’s 57 years since Dame Stephanie started her business and by now one would have hoped we would have seen greater change in gender equality and diversity within the workplace and society. If we were to try and link these issues up with one word to the issues that saw Dame Stephanie be evacuated then ‘tolerance’ may be a good candidate. Intolerance often leads to discrimination, racism and, in extreme cases, genocide; they are all points on the same compass.
“When you look at what happened, it is almost unbelievable that Germany, a cultured country of Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller, should degrade into some anarchic horror – I still don’t understand it and I’ve read a fair bit about it. My father worked at the Nuremberg Trials so he told me a little about it. I attended some of the Nuremberg Trials but it is almost unbelievable so it is not surprising that people shy away from it. I try to do my part in retaining some sort of knowledge and on Holocaust Memorial Day, I gave three different speeches this year because I’m one of the few people that has direct experience of its impact. It is not an easy solution and there is a Holocaust Commission being set up by the Government and they have done many life stories, including mine, which are recorded and will be used in the exhibition so that gives authenticity to the facts and figures because you can hear these voices that actually say what happened to me.
Thinking about this question of tolerance, there is definitely unconscious bias and people are bias against people of different coloured skin, different gender and different age and I suppose that it will always be with us. It is hard to counter one’s own unconscious bias but we all have them which is a contradiction in terms – unconscious but yet we know we have got them.
The things that need to be done are not terribly different from what I was talking about 50 years ago. There’s nothing particularly new in what I’m going to say. I think one’s got to encourage the shift from position and status and gravitas to less class-based – focus instead on knowledge, authenticity and presence and perhaps copy some of the ‘not for profits’ who manage this very much better.”
As we reflect on #BalanceforBetter there is much that needs rebalancing so that we get greater tolerance that will deliver gender equality and diversity in our societies and workplace. One thing is clear that when asked “Do you think that the extreme lack of tolerance experienced during WW2 has driven you all your life to achieve equality and to disrupt the status quo?” the answer was clear:
“I’m absolutely sure that that is the case. I’m easily bored so I was going to do something that’s a bit different. The first time I was called disruptive, I thought somebody was being rude but that’s exactly what I am. Partly that’s because I’ve not had a good education and so nobody told me what I wasn’t supposed to do so I was able to just go and do it! I like change, and I like novelty, and I like to be with other people who are innovative and full of ideas. I think ideas rather than things are much more important.”
In the West we do not revere the wisdom of our elders maybe as much as they do in the East. There is much that we can learn from Dame Stephanie and her memoirs (Let It Go) not least because despite technological advances, attitudes of society have not moved on as fast and a bit more tolerance may be just what is needed.
“Writing my memoirs took me about 18 months working in the evenings when I felt like it really. Why did I write it at all? Well I felt I’d got some messages that I wanted to share with other people. That may be a bit big headed but I read it now and there are life lessons on pretty well every page and I’m pretty proud of it.”
So on International Women’s Day here is a story of an international female leader who for over 50 years has been battling away with the challenges life has put her way to better balance society. She has had good days and dark days but she still endures. How much more inspiration do you need?
Editor in Chief