As we celebrate International Women’s Day and its theme of #BalanceforBetter, we talk to 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.
PB: Dame Stephanie, good morning.
PB: Before we start asking questions, I just wanted to give our listeners a sample of your honours if I may…You were awarded an OBE in 1980, the Freedom of the City of London in 1987 and were the first female President of the British Council Society in 1989, you received the Mountbatten Medal in 1999 and Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2000. You received the Beacon Fellowship Prize in 2003 and you were assessed as one of the most 100 powerful women in the UK by Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. You’re listed as one of the top 50 scientists by the Science Council. You were made a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2018 and also very recently in 2018, you were awarded the Companion of Honour Award presented by Prince William and are also renowned as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. That is quite a staggering list!
DSS: Well after an introduction like that, I can hardly wait to hear what I’m going to say!!
PB: Can I start by talking about your evacuation to England as a child aged 5. As a parent myself, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for your parents to send you to England. Did you ever speak to them about it later in life?
DSS: 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.
PB: You said that you never really bonded with them. Do you regret or resent this?
DSS: Oh I regret it enormously. 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 birth parents. I was very lucky with my foster parents and I am their child in all but birth.
PB: If we move on to your early life, you spent some time at the Post Office working at their research facility in Dollis Hill. What was that experience like?
DSS: It was a very happy 8 years. 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.
PB: Having started your business, how did you get around the sexist attitudes that existed at the time, especially around winning new business? You changed your name to Steve to help with the contract applications but did you do anything else?
DSS: Well, 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 every really slipped – made a difference and we were eventually accepted.
PB: You did win some very prestigious work – you won and did the programming on Concorde’s black box. How did that job come about?
DSS: I was thinking about that Concorde project the other day and I could not really remember how it came in. I think it was our Technical Director who went on to actually lead that project of about 30 people looking at the analogue readings from the black box and the cockpit noises and analysing them. I think everything is a matter of teamwork and all sorts of routes brought work in. My first job, for example, was from my ex-employer. Now, we had hundreds of people working for us and they all had ex-employers so they sometimes fed things into us. We tried to be innovative about how we marketed and presented ourselves.
PB: Thinking about to your evacuation from Austria as a refugee for a minute and the time you spent in Europe after WW2 with your dad as he worked with the US Army, I read a poll recently about marking the Holocaust Memorial day, where it was recorded that 1 in 20 British Adults do not believe that the Holocaust happened and 8% say that the scale has been exaggerated. Are we doing enough to ensure that the truth endures to ensure this never happens again?
DSS: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.
PB: If we look at the attitudes in America and with Brexit in the UK, both countries profited through diversity (immigration in the US and through the Empire in the UK), how do you feel about this lack of tolerance and forgetfulness that we seem to be experiencing?
DSS: I’m bitterly, bitterly disappointed. I mean I love this country myself with a passion that perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel. We were made so welcome and compare 10,000 unaccompanied children coming in in 1938/39 and being absorbed in the community with, as far as I know, no problems at all with the number of children that Britain talks about admitting today, I’m somewhat ashamed of this country that I’m so proud of that we somehow have changed and become “little England” again and they’re pretty negative thoughts I’m afraid.PB: Moving on and talking about gender equality, I wonder if this also representative of a lack of tolerance, albeit not as extreme as genocide and WW2 but if you think about unconscious bias?
DSS: That’s exactly what I’ve noted down! Thinking about this question, 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…
PB: 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?
DSS: 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.
PB: Although some sectors are trying to address gender equality, there is still work to be done, especially in getting greater diversity. In many cases, where gender equality is happening, it’s white middle class women who make it into the ‘c-suite’. What more do you think we should do to get real diversity?
DSS: 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.
PB: We are slowly starting to get more women in to the tech industry – Professor Sue Black who’s recently been appointed as the Professor at Durham University – is doing great work to highlight the issues but again, is there anything else we should be doing to encourage greater gender equality in technology? Should the big tech companies be doing more?
DSS: Well I’m one of Sue Black’s biggest admirers and it’s fairly mutual I gather but anyway, I’m working with one of the tech giants and most of them are trying to do the right things. When you have a vast corporate, it is extremely difficult to change culture. I’m sure that I could not have had the success that I had in the corporate world but starting things differently, I could start off with a company that was designed to be suitable for women and to give them the flexibility and work/life balance that women consistently say that they want.
PB: What advice would you give to girls studying to get in to what are considered male dominated industries?
DSS: You have to get informed as to the industry and you’ve got to choose your employer properly. Get the policies. It’s all about people rather than process and when you get an employer like that, you stand a chance of actually thriving which is what we want everyone to do.
PB: Can I also ask what advice you’d give to women who feel that their career has hit the glass ceiling as someone who is a disruptor?
DSS: Well, you can change your employer which I what I did, or you can change your career which is what many people now do. My husband worked for 40 years for the same employer and that doesn’t happen anymore. We move around and it is good and healthy that we do that.
PB: You’ve been extremely successful in your business, but it’s been documented that dealing with your son’s illness did take a tremendous toll on your own health and marriage. Many would not have had the resolve to get past this. How did you manage?
DSS: I’m a pretty proud person and conscious of being a role model for other women. I advise women to get help and else, as happened to me, the whole issues 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.
PB: You’ve recently written your memoirs – Let It Go – was writing them a cathartic experience and what was the reason for the title of the book?
DSS: It was certainly not a cathartic experience; it 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. It’s about to be re-issued by Penguin Books on 04 April. I shall be in Cambridge that day and we shall have a great big celebration. Inspiration comes in different ways and the book is really my ‘thank you’ to all the people that have helped me. PB: Do you think your book will become a film?
DSS: It’s interesting that you say that because the development partnership are actually developing a film and will start filming this year because we already have Damian Jones as a producer and it’s starting to happen. It will concentrate very much on the women in business issue, the Kinder transport story only as a flashback, and the autism story with my son just mentioned and no mention of philanthropy at all really. I’m looking forward to that which will be a wonderful experience to watch a film being made and to be so personally involved. It will also be called ‘Let It Go’ so everyone should go and see it.
PB: I’ll look forward to it! Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
DSS: The big mistake I made was that I was scared of finance and I should have really got myself trained enough in finance much earlier so that I could have really have used that as a tool in my business. I do regret that. I think I kept the company very naïve and simple simply because I was not trained in financial skills.
PB: Dame Stephanie Shirley – thank you so much for joining us today. I have no doubt our listeners will be much inspired. Thank you very much.
DSS: Thank you for inviting me!