Dame Stephanie Shirley’s approach to flexible working and job-sharing for women in the 1960s was revolutionary and paved the way for women working in the technology industry today.
She is well known for her tireless work as an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and at the age of 81 there is still no sign of her slowing down.
Taking time out of her busy schedule, Shirley met with Computer Weekly to discuss several projects close to her heart and what life was like as a woman in IT starting out in the 1950s at the Post Office.
“Entrepreneurs don’t do well; they just learn to survive their mistakes," she says.
“My first boss taught me the type of boss I didn’t want to be. I wanted to provide my own model. When I started Xansa it was a company by women for women. The model was built around a company that I would like to work for. While the other big companies were turning women away, we were offering them jobs.”
Shirley said that when she launched Xansa in 1962 it was a challenging time for a working woman, which is why she adopted the nickname of Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, as it seemed to open more doors when trying to gain business in a competitive market.
“They say you can always tell a successful woman by the shape of our heads – we’re always being patted,” she added.
When Xansa was starting out, only three out of its 300 programmers were men. However, in 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in the UK which was designed to protect men and women from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status.
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“After 1975 we couldn’t be pro-women anymore," says Shirley. "This was a great thing for the success of the team in the long run though. By the time I sold Xansa to Steria, in 2007, the company had 8,500 employees."
“I like to find new things to work on. I eventually handed over Xansa for the sake of the company. The entrepreneur has to know when to do that – know when the time is right and being able to give up the control for the sake of the company’s survival.”
In 1962 Shirley had started FI Group, later rebranded as Xansa, with just £6, after having to gain her husband’s permission to open a bank account. At the company’s peak, during the 1980s, she was worth £150 million.
In 1993, she officially retired at 60 and has since taken up philanthropy, giving away at least £67 million to more than 100 projects.
In 1986 she set up the The Shirley Foundation to facilitate and support projects that impact the field of autism spectrum disorders. Her interest in the area stems from her late son Giles who was autistic. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 35 following an epileptic fit.
Her aim is to get one million people with Asperger's syndrome into the IT industry by 2020: “It has been said that the autistic brain is like a computer; very repetitive and patient at doing a task over and over again which makes those with autism and Asperger's perfect employees for tech.”
Using virtual reality for autism can help with the simplest of things such as how to get around a city
Through the Shirley Foundation, she has set up a specialist residential school for autistic students, has funded other charities supporting autistic individuals and launched the first online autism conference, which was attended by 165,000 people globally.
A project that she touched upon was the use of virtual environments for social skills training, an ongoing initiative at Nottingham University. The project has been funded by The Shirley Foundation: “Using virtual reality for autism can help with the simplest of things such as how to get around a city or find a seat on a bus, for example.”
Another initiative close to her heart is Abilitynet, which aims to change the lives of disabled people by helping them use digital technology at work, at home or in education.
She is a member of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and the Oxford Internet Institute. Shirley said she enjoys working with the Institute because “it is about the social and ethical side of the internet not the technology side to it.”
Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1980 Queen's Birthday Honours and promoted Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year Honours 2000. She also features on Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in UK IT 2014 list.
I donated my wealth because of my personal history; I need to justify the fact that my life was saved
Only recently Shirley participated in a campaign by BCSWomen to demonstrate the range of roles open to young women considering joining the tech industry.
The women taking part in the campaign provided blogs and video interviews to inspire young females to follow in their footsteps.
Expanding on why she has devoted post-retirement to philanthropy she mentioned her 2012 memoirs Let IT Go. In her book she said she chose to give away most of her wealth because of her own background: “I do it because of my personal history; I need to justify the fact that my life was saved.”
Born a survivor, Shirley arrived in Britain at the age of five as an unaccompanied child refugee, escaping Nazi Germany just weeks before the start of the second world war.
She was taken in by foster parents in Sutton, later briefly re-uniting with her biological Jewish Father and Christian Mother after the war had ended.
Her Kindertransport experience was the start of her transformation from Vera Buchthal to Stephanie Brook, and then later to the respected Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley who we know today.