Dame ‘Steve’ Shirley: ‘Now there’s nothing holding women back’
“I haven’t got a lot of patience with women who complain,” says Dame Stephanie Shirley. “There’s nothing holding women back now except our own avoidance of trauma and hard work.
“Young women today have the choice over whether they want a vigorous professional career or whether they want to float around a bit more and enjoy life.”
It is views like this that do not always endear Dame “Steve” Shirley to the current generation of feminists and she cheerfully admits she knows they can annoy people. But she is difficult to ignore, because she is uniquely well placed to talk about women in the workplace and in technology.
Dame Stephanie is 82 and it is perhaps best to call her a female pioneer, because she rejects the feminist term. She was born in 1933 in Dortmund, Germany, to a Jewish father and a gentile Austrian mother. She left them behind when, aged 5, she was moved to the UK as a Kindertransport refugee. She was raised by foster parents on the Midlands and Welsh borders, where she discovered a flair for maths. She decided not to go to university, joining instead the Post Office Research station in Dollis Hill, London. Here she worked on computers and took a maths degree at night school.
In 1962, she founded a software company called Freelance Programmers, which she ran from her dining room table. “Computers came along when I was realising that maths wasn’t for me,” she explains. “The industry was wide open for anyone to contribute.”
But it was not just a company, it was a calling. “I set up a software house because I’d hit the glass ceiling. I was passionate about not being patronised and became very assertive, although I’ve never been a feminist.”
The company was radical for its time. Its employees were nearly all women and they mostly worked from home. The programs were written on paper and sent in by letter.
Dame Stephanie was determined to give women, particularly those with children, the chance to work. The business was revolutionary in other ways: “We were one of the first networked companies. We used phones and we used people’s home television sets. You can imagine how popular that was.”
Of course, she had to deal with the attitudes of the time and one legacy of this is her nickname, “Steve”. She used it in letters to clients who did not reply to “Stephanie”. She received a far better response rate if clients thought they were dealing with a man.
The company, which she owned in its entirety, was floated in the 1990s and made her very rich. With a net worth of $200m, she was at one point the 11th wealthiest woman in the UK. She shared the money with staff, giving them a quarter of shares and at the IPO, creating 70 millionaires. But all this is history. Dame Stephanie is now into her third decade of retirement, having stopped work in 1993.
However, like many entrepreneurs she cannot really stop. Even now, her productivity puts many people half her age to shame. “I’m a workaholic and can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “I suppose I’m a role model: look, your granny can still be working.”
Over the course of an hour-long conversation, our topics range from the tech-enabled, agile workforce and the use of robots to teach the severely autistic to interact, to the spread of Islamophobia and her Apple Watch.
She is funny and aphoristic. Describing what might now be called “intersectionality” (a critical tool that says oppressive behaviours such as sexism and racism are interconnected), she explains that she employed one of the few black directors in the City of London. “It was the mid-80s and you could hear the whispers: ‘Look, Steve’s not with her husband . . . she’s with a black guy.’”
These days, she sees herself as a philanthropist, something that has its roots in her childhood — the Kindertransport and her life with a foster family meant that she had been dependent on the kindness of strangers. Moreover, she cannot bear the idea of a fortune sitting idle, so she has given the vast majority of her wealth away. “Money that does no work has a sort of obscenity to it.”
Most of her efforts are now focused on autism research. Her only son was severely autistic and died in 1998 as a result of an autism-related fit. “I fund medical research and I’m working with scientists, so I’m having a wonderful time,” she says.
The sums she donates are typically £100,000, but the biggest was £20m, so she wants to ensure that she gives wisely and strategically. “I remember costing one project and realising it was going to run to £400m, which was way out of my reach. We are now doing the work, but we’re piggybacking on something the Gates Foundation started.”
You should, she adds, start charities with a view to walking away when they are sustainable. “You want to have an exit strategy.” Reaching sustainability is a bit like an initial public offering for good causes.
Towards the end of the interview, I press her again on the barriers women still face in technology and she gives a similarly brief answer — that there are not many — and then we are back to talking about fingerprint recognition and how brilliant it is in helping severely autistic people.
“They’re using this technology on doors, because it means these people they don’t have keys to use. It improves the quality of their life, but also reduces the care cost.”
This, I think, is the reason for what some view as her disdain for modern female workplace concerns.
Compared with the mountains her generation faced, today’s women are griping about molehills. All big battles have been fought and won, she feels, and there are more important things to worry about.