Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley: “We hired men. If they were good enough.”

If you’ve read my latest post, you know that I spent the past week slowly settling into my busy life working as the editor-in-chief of my school newspaper. Well, coincidentally, this week, I’ll be settling into my new marketing internship. This has meant that every free moment this past week that wasn’t spent getting sucked into compilations of Richard Ayoade being the funniest man alive, I’ve been on the fabulous lynda.com refreshing my knowledge of Adobe programs.

Do you know that feeling when you haven’t gotten enough sleep and you’re really fidgety and restless and you feel like you could totally learn a whole new language in the span of an hour or literally anything else other than what you actually have to do in that moment? Well, I ended up clicking on a 22 hour program for advanced C+ programming code despite the fact that the only experience I’ve had with programming was a ten minute video in which I learned how to make a single sentence italicized.

Nonetheless, I stared at this British man going in depth on all kinds of codes that can make an image change the width of pixels by fractions or change the width of widgets in a sidebar. I was transfixed. I didn’t understand any of it but I marveled at how this kind of programming is the foundation for everything on the Internet today and how grateful I am that we have resources to help us understand how it works.

I once watched a documentary about people who made up their own language, like one lady never used any “s”s or “w”s, and a man only communicated with open vowel sounds. I imagine the advent of programming would be something like that but exponentially more complicated because it involves technology, my arch nemesis.

But programming has been in the process of creation for over sixty years and, at the helm of the early tech companies, were women. There was one woman in particular, Dame Stephanie“Steve” Shirley, who is still alive today but, as she admits, shouldn’t have lived past five.

She was born in Dortmund, Germany in 1934 to a Jewish judge and a Viennese housewife, and given the name Vera Buchthal. Five years later, before they were taken to concentration camps, Stephanie’s parents boarded her and her older sister on a train headed to Britain with 10,000 other Jewish children. These children rode for two and a half days to escape their inevitable death in the camps by finding new homes in British foster care as part of the Kindertransport.

Image Credit: Steve Shirley Website

She was adopted by a fairly conventional middle class couple in Staggordshire, who renamed her Stephanie, and she grew up living a fairly conventional middle class life. However, the horrors of the Holocaust, though still terrifying her, lit a flame inside of her.

“The fact that I nearly died in the Holocaust means the I’m very motivated to make sure…that my life was worth saving. I had built a determination that I was not going to let other people define me.”

While she attended an all-girls school, she developed a love and talent for numbers even though the school didn’t teach math or science. So she transferred to a boys’ school where teaching math and science was deemed appropriate. However, despite the fact that she flourished, she felt ostracized and found an escape in the school library where she read about every possible field she could imagine.

After high school, she went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Sir John’s College, which she studied for in the evenings. During the day, she worked for the Post Office at their prestigious Dollis Hill Research Station developing many of their projects including the first electronic phone calls and transatlantic telephone cables. Of 2,000 employees who worked at the station, Stephanie was the only woman.

Image Credit: Steve Shirley Website

After she graduated in the late 1950s, she was hired as a software developer at ICL, a computer manufacturer. I’m going to pause real quick right here to admit that I tried to understand exactly the difference between a computer manufacturer and a computer programmer and a software developer and a software programmer and I got hopelessly lost and Lynda could not help me. I do know that all of these roles contributed to creating either the programming language or the way it was received so I’m mad impressed. However, moving forward, I am just going to stick to my strong suit which is history and not technology and tell you that whatever was going on at ICL and whatever Stephanie was doing, she loved it.

However, not everyone loved the idea of having her there. “When I first started I was patronized, as women were, but when I began to make it clear that I was pursuing a vigorous professional career, then it became a more entrenched position to keep me out.” She was denied promotion after promotion despite the fact that her work was more than good enough to merit one.

In 1959, Stephanie married Derek Shirley, a physicist. Many of her coworkers expected and believed that she should quit her job for good and take up a domestic life of raising children. However, she had different ideas. So she quit and had a son, Giles, but she didn’t give up her work.

Image Credit: Steve Shirley Website

Instead, she launched her own tech company in 1962, specifically to provide jobs for women with children. She called it “freelance programmers,” all lowercase because they had no capital…Brilliant. Many of her employees had great degrees but had left work after getting married or having a child. They were able to work from home, Stephanie included, who would cover up the sound of her baby from her clients by running a tape of typewriter sounds. They served as consultants in programming and created the standards used to test and develop software. Not only was “freelance programmers” revolutionary in the sense that it was created by women for women but it was also one of the first software startups in the UK and one of the only companies to focus exclusively on writing software.

Pretty soon, the company had 300 programmers. All but three were women. “We hired men. If they were good enough.” Ironically, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, put in place to give women more freedom in the workplace, insisted that she hire more men.

This was at a time when women had to have their husband’s permission to even open a bank account.  Stephanie found herself groped by clients when she tried to sell them an IT contract. Nobody replied to any of her letters that offered the company’s programming and consulting services when she signed it Stephanie Shirley. However, when she signed it “Steve,” her husband’s nickname for her, suddenly people paid attention and things began to take off. At the company’s peak in the 1980s, 70 of the staff, who owned 25 percent of the company’s equity, were millionaires and Stephanie herself was worth £150 million.

Unfortunately, this was also at a time when people believed that if they didn’t raise their own children, their kids would become juvenile delinquents. On top of this, Stephanie’s and Derek’s son , Giles, was severely autistic and suffered from epilepsy, requiring much more specific care. Derek retired early to be able to trade off shifts caring for Giles with Stephanie but both found themselves incredibly stressed. Stephanie, at one point, was smoking 60 cigarettes a day and eventually had a nervous breakdown which kept her in the hospital for several weeks. In 1993, she decided to retire and became Britain’s 11th wealthiest woman after she floated the company.

Sadly, Giles died of an epileptic seizure in 1998. In his honor, Stephanie put her wealth to use by donating to autism foundations, think tanks and charities, giving away over£67 million. She also founded Autistica, which fundraises for medical research, and Prior’s Court School, which functions as an independent specialized school for autistic students.

Chilling with the Queen  /  Image Credit: Steve Shirley Website

In 2000, she earned the title of “Dame.” The Institute of Directors also presented her with a lifetime achievement award. She wrote a memoir called “Let It Go” (before Frozen was even a thing) and appeared on a TEDtalk, where she discussed her life and how she can recognize an ambition woman.

A lot has certainly changed in the way we use and can understand programming (or look on Lynda) and a lot of that comes from the determination of Dame Stephanie Shirley. However, not much has changed in the presence of women in the industry. As of 2016, only 9.7 percent of all partners at venture capital firms were women and 8.3 percent of startups were led by women. The problem, as TechCrunch reports, is a lack of innovative maternity leave policies and undercurrents of condescension that leaves many female workers feeling isolated.

However, Stephanie is optimistic about the future. “Looking back today, from the other end of a life that has been exceptionally rich in nearly every sense, I can see that most of my subsequent achievements can be traced back to that unnatural separation [from my family]. It marked the beginning of a narrative far more interesting than the one that had originally been scripted for me. But it also taught me, with the ending of my first life, a profound lesson: that few things in life are as solid as they seem; that tomorrow will not always resemble today; and that wholesale change, though often terrifying, is not necessarily synonymous with catastrophe.”

Image Credit: Steve Shirley Website