Blog Spot May18

2018 Computer History Museum Fellow Dame Stephanie ShirleyDame Stephanie Shirley


“We were part of a crusade to get Women into Business”

These words by the 83-year-old entrepreneur – Dame Stephanie Shirley shows what a long way she has come, championing women’s right to be regarded as equals in the workplace.

Dame Stephanie Shirley has recently been inducted in the Computer History Museum’s 2018 prestigious Hall of Fellows. She will be awarded for her contribution towards a lifetime of entrepreneurship promoting the growth of UK software industry and the advancement of women in computing.

In 1962, Shirley founded, with a capital of £6, the software company Freelance Programmers. She was only 29 then. She wanted to create job opportunities for women with dependents, and hence predominantly employed women, with only 3 male programmers in the first 300 staff, until the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made that practice illegal. The company was created by a woman for women.

Did you know that Shirley had to adopt the name, Steve to help her in the male dominated business world!

Before Shirley, no one developed and sold computer software separately from the hardware. And that was just one of her many breakthroughs in the computing world. However it was difficult to flourish in the male-dominated software industry. Hence apart from adopting the name Steve, she also had a strict attitude towards her business, be it signing business letters to potential clients because they were not responding to her, or when men at work put their arms around her and pinched her bottom. Her response was to shout loudly: “Take your hands off me.”

Her attitude did payoff: Shirley went on to create a multibillion-pound IT software consultancy, the F1 Group (formerly known as Freelance Programmers), from which she made a £150 million fortune. She created so many revolutions though her work that Queen Elizabeth was left with no choice but to make her a “Dame” (British’s female equivalent of a knight). Even more unusual at that time, Shirley had a huge chunk of her own shares given away to the staff who ended up owning more than half the company. Seventy became millionaires.

In her own words : “There are two things I am proud of – employing women at a time when they couldn’t find work and giving away shares in the business. I was an early admirer of John Lewis, and saw how giving people ownership changes their relationship to work. What is surprising is that more entrepreneurs don’t do this today.”

After retiring at the age of 60, she has devoted her life to philanthropy and in 2009, was honored for her largesse by being made the UK’s first Ambassador for Philanthropy. She also supports research to study autism spectrum disorders and strategies to improve the IT industry.

The journey of Dame Stephanie Shirley is very unique and outstanding, so it’s not surprising to see her inducted in the CHM’s 2018 Hall of Fellows. At a time when women were viewed as objects incapable of serious work, Shirley left the glass ceiling behind and built not just a company but a way of life for her employees. She is indeed a pioneer for women in computing and technology!