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Interview: Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley: 'Scared silly' by Brexit

Renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Shirley talks robots teaching children, and why Brexit has her “scared silly”

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Entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley is an icon in the technology industry, and part of the sector for more than 50 years.

Starting her women-led company in 1962, Shirley not only developed an IT services supplier by women for women, but led the flexible working movement that is now commonplace in a tech-driven world.That company, initially called Freelance Programmers and then F International, eventually became Xansa, which was acquired by Steria in 2007.

So when someone like Shirley, with her years of experience and her background as a refugee, says she’s “scared silly” by the prospect of Brexit, it is difficult not to feel uncomfortable about the future.

Describing herself as “pro EU” having come to the UK in the 1930s as an immigrant, and the impact of growing up in a post-war world, Shirley says many of the aspects of life that people take for granted are discussed, organised and legislated “pan European”.

This includes vital research, funding for projects and defence, among other things, and it’s no secret that the technology industry is concerned about the impact leaving the EU will have on access to tech talentShirley states: “I’m appalled and worried and scared silly.”

To combat this upcoming skills gap, the industry is putting an emphasis on the importance of home-grown talent.

Shirley believes coding should be taught at as young as two years old, having witnessed “children in highchairs” using technology.

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Not only is this because young people need to understand technology and the impact it will have in their later lives, but also because “society is gendered very early”, so leaving it too late to incorporate technology education into people’s lives can mean gender stereotyping may have already set in.

“These gender issues are taking a long time to fix because leaders are determining the criteria for leadership in the future, and if you’ve got male leadership as we have done for several years, it’s rare for women to break through,” says Shirley.

Because gender stereotypes are formed during childhood, she says it takes generations to change these attitudes. For her, being a refugee drove her to be a businesswoman and entrepreneur, because she was “motivated by the necessity of dealing with change”.

When recruiting at Xansa, one of the questions candidates were asked was “do you have access to a telephone?” as there was no office and everyone used technology to work from home.

But the technologies that seemed revolutionary when she started Xansa are now a part of everyday life, and the skills needed for industry are always changing.

For example, Shirley says it would be illegal for her to set up a company today in the same way she did Xansa. “You couldn’t possibly have a company that set out to be gendered. I deliberately tried to build a company that was female-friendly and a crusade for a company by women for women.”

A lack of diversity

But 50 years on, there is still a lack of women and wider diversity in the technology industry, something Shirley advises larger firms about.

Among her recommendations for increasing diversity are anonymising the bios of applications to the business, having gender-balanced candidate shortlists and making sure role models are visible.

“People need to actually see role models, we are about,” she says. There are also still misconceptions about what technology roles involve, with a lot of emphasis still being put on the need for coding ability when actually it is becoming more important to be creative.

“There’s this credibility gap where if you can’t code people think you shouldn’t be in technology and that absolute nonsense because there’s so much to do in tech,” says Shirley.

Putting an emphasis on roles such as marketing and finance, which are now increasingly involving the use of tech, Shirley says these roles are becoming more important as tech itself is “all over the place”.

But women in these roles often do not consider themselves women in tech, and when women find themselves in technical roles in this male dominated sector, they sometimes revert to being  “one of the boys” in order to fit in – something some high profile women have admitted to regretting later in their careers.

This can do more harm than good. “Whenever one starts to behave not in line with your general personality, that leads to unhappiness, and I do think many women felt like they had to become aggressive,” she said.

Teaching children with autism

Though Shirley believes she is now more philanthropist than woman in tech, she is still using technology as part of Prior’s Court school, funded by the Shirley Foundation to help teach children with autism.

She says these schools were the type of place she would have liked her late son Giles to attend, but they were not available at the time. “The motivation of people is things like a family experience, but it’s much more about what happened to you in childhood.”

Shirley has been introducing robots into these schools, named Steve after her nickname, and says of up and coming technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are the “most exciting” – VR, for example, has already been used in some cases to help autistic children overcome conditions such as claustrophobia or to teach them how to find their way around cities.

But because of non-diverse development teams these technologies are being created with biases, and fewer use cases like this will be developed if the teams who are working on them are not diverse.

“For AI to have a decent public image, we really need to have diversity in design, in training and in implementation,” she says. “Gender diversity is the one that will have the most economical impact on everything, but there are all sorts of diversity.”

For her work in the technology industry, Shirley was submitted into the Computer Weekly most influential women in UK IT Hall of Fame, which celebrates women who have made a lifelong commitment to the sector.

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