IWD 2022 – in conversation with Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, a women-in-tech pioneer

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 8, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Dame Stephanie Shirley looks back over a tech career that began in the 1950s and the changes she's seen for better – and worse.

Shirley
Dame Stephanie

When I first started out as a technology journalist back in 2000, with IT skills as one of my beats, the proportion of women working in tech compared to men was around 20%. Today, that number still sits at around 20%.

There’s a raft of data out there that explains all the reasons for this stagnation, despite the efforts of so many organizations to break the bias (the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day) and get more women into the tech sector. One piece of research that caught my eye is from PwC, which reveals that only 27% of female college/university students consider a career in technology, compared to 61% of males; only 3% of women say tech is their first choice.

Just as worrying, 78% of students were unable to name a famous woman working in technology. I’m pretty sure if the same question was to name a man in tech, Gates or Zuckerberg or Musk would be quickly and easily name-checked by most.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1960s, when Dame Stephanie Shirley – aka Steve - set up her computing company, the proportion of women in computing and mathematical professions was 27%. Fast forward to the 1990s, and women accounted for a respectable 35% of the tech workforce.

Despite the last three decades being a period of hyper growth for the industry, however, tech woman have rapidly decreased. We’ve gone from women accounting for more than a third to less than a fifth of tech jobs. So was it just much easier in the pre-1990s to be a woman in tech?

According to Dame Stephanie, not so. From her experience, the downwards shift in the proportion of women was about money rather than ease of access to jobs. She recalls:

Starting from the Bletchley Park days, coding was predominantly done by women. Then as the profession grew to provide well-paid careers, the men took over.

Back in the 1950s, Dame Stephanie says embarking on a career in technology as a young woman was challenging but “so enjoyable”. She remembers it as a time with huge potential for a would-be mathematician, regardless of gender.

Dame Stephanie got a job at the Post Office Research Station, building computers and writing code. While there, she took evening classes to obtain an honours degree in maths, and moved to computer manufacturer CDL in 1959.

However, after facing a decade of low expectations, inequality and sexism in the computing industry, Dame Stephanie decided to start her own software company. Of the 300 initial staff at Freelance Programmers, 297 were women working from home. Dame Stephanie explains:

I was continually hitting the glass ceiling so set up Freelance Programmers not to make money but rather as a crusade to provide professional employment for women who had left the computer industry (as was then the norm) on marriage or when their first child was expected.

But running her own technology business was not all plain sailing compared to working for someone else’s. One hurdle came with the introduction of the UK's Sex Discrimination Act 1975 , which made the practice of actively employing people based on gender illegal.

Another came from those inside the technology industry, many members of which were seemingly unimpressed by the notion of a woman-led computing company, leading to Dame Stephanie’s name change. She said:

My letters were not getting answered. My dear husband suggested that I use the family nickname of Steve. And surprise, surprise, it worked.

By signing off her letters touting for business as Steve, Dame Stephanie was able to get a foot in the door before anyone realised she was a woman, leading to a successful business that was valued at almost $3 billion by 2000. 

Names  

This wasn’t the first name change for Dame Stephanie. Born Vera Buchthal in Germany, she was one of the 10,000 Kindertransport child refugees, arriving in London in 1939, aged five. On becoming a British citizen aged 18, she changed her name to Stephanie Brook.

Dame Stephanie’s experience as a child refugee set her on an early path to a career in technology:

It taught me to deal with change, indeed eventually to welcome change. And that is useful in the digital world.

Dame Stephanie retired in 1993, aged 60, and now focuses on philanthropy in the field of autism, inspired by her late son Giles, who was severely autistic. She has also authored two books: So To Speak, her lockdown project, focusing on autism, women in business and philanthropy; and her memoir, Let It Go.

On the question of whether it’s now easier to establish a tech career as a woman, Dame Stephanie defines it as “less difficult”. The main changes for women in the technology industry since her early days are that the difficulties have moved from legal restrictions to cultural ones.

She feels that more needs to be done to draw girls to technology as a subject and career, and this should be from a very young age. As the PwC research highlighted, by the age of 16 upwards, most young women have discounted a career in technology. A multi-pronged approach is needed to solve this problem, according to Dame Stephanie. This includes more subject mentors for young girls; early exposure to STEM; and a shift in primary school education to expand technology teaching and ensure it’s inclusive for girls.

Later in the chain, she would like to see more positive efforts to get women interested in STEM subjects, and more funding for women-led businesses.

While the proportion of women in tech hasn’t changed much since the new millennium – and has actually decreased since Dame Stephanie’s time working in the sector - there is now much more focus on diversity, equity and inclusion within the industry, with many initiatives to support, attract and retain women and people from other underrepresented groups. There are many reasons why it makes sense to recruit from all prospective workers, as Dame Stephanie notes:

A number of quality studies show the numerate benefits. There’s the potential to reduce recruitment and attrition costs. Some nations already restrict access to contracts to organisations with gender diversity, and that will increasingly extend to their supply chains. And if you don’t have diversity and your policies are challenged, it eats up staff time in litigation.

Although Dame Stephanie no longer runs a technology business, she is pleased to continue to act as a role model for women in technology and as a general advocate for diversity. And she adds:

And to shatter the myth of what the older woman does or does not do!

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