Dame Stephanie Shirley: 'we were part of a crusade to get women into business'

Fed up with hitting the glass ceiling, in 1962 the businesswoman and former refugee set up a software business for female programmers

Dame Stephanie Shirley does not call herself a feminist. When pressed, she concedes she is “in deed but not in word”.

The story of this 83-year-old entrepreneur is explicitly one of championing women’s right to be regarded as equals in the workplace. She started a software company in 1962 that employed almost only female programmers after becoming fed up of hitting an impregnable glass ceiling. But there is something about the “f” word that she does not like.

Perhaps, when you’ve been on the sharp end of a battle for decades, it’s actions, rather than the language used to describe the fight, that matter most.

Shirley is used to fighting. She arrived in London “terrified and weeping” at five years old after leaving Vienna on the Kindertransport. With an obvious aptitude for maths, she secured a job at the Post Office’s prestigious Dollis Hill research station at 18 and found herself increasingly interested in computers. “When I first started [in the workplace] I was patronised, as women were, but when I began to make it clear that I was pursuing a vigorous professional career, then it became a more entrenched position to keep me out,” she remembers.

Shirley knew her work was good enough to get her promoted. But again and again, the promised promotion never materialised. The discrimination, she says, was “quite overt”. On getting married, she says, “the expectation was that I would stop work immediately, and that my life would become one of domesticity and children”. She wanted the children, but not the domesticity.

At 29, she set up her own software company from her dining table. Freelance Programmers was a company of women and for women, focused on creating an environment where women could manage their home and professional lives. To do that, she says, the business had to be “family friendly in the extreme”, with flexible hours and homeworking encouraged. Many of her female employees had left work after getting married or having their first child but they all had good degrees.

It wasn’t as effortless as it sounds. These were the days when women couldn’t even open a bank account without her husband’s permission. She took to sending out letters touting for business signed as “Steve” rather than “Stephanie”, after realising that using her own name wasn’t improving her company’s credibility in the male-dominated world of IT. She acknowledges that she was terrible at the finance side of things, which held her company back for years. “I was scared of money,” she says. “I don’t think it was about undervaluing the work, it was just sheer ignorance. I thought it was quite acceptable to buy a unit of labour for a pound and sell it for one pound fifty. And it just doesn’t work.” It took her 25 years to appoint a finance director, at which point pricing was professionalised.

Running a female-friendly business in this way was also a deliberate choice that contrasted with the way other women had succeeded in a macho working culture. “When I started I went out of my way to meet the very few women in business I could locate. I came away thinking that if being in business means becoming like her then I don’t want to do it – it seemed entirely production oriented and about money, money, money,” Shirley says.

Eventually, the business thrived and the team worked on the programming of the black box flight recorder used in Concorde. Shirley floated her company in 1993, which made her and 70 of her loyal staff millionaires. Even today, money does not appear to hold much interest for her. She says truly successful entrepreneurs are rarely in the game for that reason: “The money comes from doing something we really enjoy.”

In many ways, her success came at an exceptionally high price. Shirley’s late son Giles was autistic but she raised him and established a world-class software company with next to no childcare. “The culture was if you didn’t rear your own children you’d have a juvenile delinquent,” she adds. Given her son’s exceptional demands and the pressure of business, she was operating 24/7 under enormous stress.

The saving grace was the warmly collegiate atmosphere she says underpinned the success of her team of female programmers. “It was quite acceptable to show your weakness; for you to help me this morning and I’ll help you this afternoon – we knew we were part of that crusade to get women into business.” Her “pro-female policy” – there were only three male programmers in the first 300 staff – ended when the Sex Discrimination Act passed in 1975.

She’s been in hot water in the past for saying young women “have it dead easy” today compared to the barriers women faced in the 1950s and 60s. But she acknowledges that “nowadays it’s more difficult because [sexism is] more subtle and cultural.” Her advice to female entrepreneurs is robust – women should “let sexism wash off them and get on with things”.

She is an advocate for anonymised CVs and application forms and says it is up to everyone involved in hiring to “teach ourselves about the hidden bias we all have, and work in ways to negate those biases”. With good staff of either gender, Shirley says, female-run startups will survive, “and the good employers do now work hard for diversity, which is proven to improve innovation”.

Searching for ways around obstacles, rather than trying to tackle them head on is also a technique she has deployed to good effect. “Softly softly … when I started I was very aggressive,” she adds. “I learned to charm my way through a little bit, and I also tried to find innovative solutions.” Today, she’s an incredibly busy philanthropist who is involved in a number of autistic charities, thinktanks and foundations.

She is pragmatic about her success – as an entrepreneur, as a champion for women’s rights, as a philanthropist in retirement. “I decided to make mine a life that was worth saving,” she said in her 2015 TED talk. “And then I just got on with it.”

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Louise Tickle

The GuardianTramp

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