Dame 'Steve' Shirley on breaking cast iron ceilings

Dame Stephanie Shirley talks identity, equal rights and philanthropy at an event in London hosted by non-profit consulting firm Aleron. Aleron works with organisations including Barnardo's, Ashoka and Blackbaud Europe in order to help them improve their efficiency and increase their social impact.

Refugee, tech entrepreneur, mother, pioneer of gender equality, philanthropist and wife – Dame Stephanie Shirley (alias “Steve”) is all of these things.

On a warm June evening overlooking London’s Tower Bridge a packed room of social investors, innovators and those simply intrigued listened to Dame Stephanie recall the “cast iron ceilings” of the 1960’s and her commitment to making hers “a life worth saving”. 

At the age of five Stephanie arrived in London with her nine year old sister, having been put on a train by their Jewish parents to escape Nazi terror in Austria. Although she struggled with her identity and longed for the surroundings that had become familiar to her, Stephanie explains that this experience gave her “the feeling that I could cope with change” and that eventually she “began to like change and welcome it”.

“I became a patriot. I soon loved the UK with a passion like only a person who has lost their human rights can truly feel,” she reflects. 

Fostered by a loving, childless couple, as she grew up it soon became clear that Stephanie was gifted in the field of mathematics. She took classes normally reserved only for boys because she was not being challenged enough in those she attended with her female classmates.

“It was an eye-opener that prepared me for the sexism of the workplace when I eventually joined it,” Stephanie explains. At the age of 17, she started working at the Post Office Research Station, where she worked on transatlantic telephone cables alongside a team that was “99% male”. 

“When you walked into the canteen for the first time, all heads turned round to see this new woman entering.” After “an epic six year courtship” one of those heads became Stephanie’s husband, with whom she had a son. 

In the early 1960s, after leaving her job at the Post Office and feeling frustrated at the “cast iron ceiling” that prevented her career from progressing at other organisations, Stephanie founded Freelance Programmers. 

I don’t measure success in financial terms

Freelance Programmers was a software company set up by women and which initially employed only women. Stephanie describes it as “an early social business” which helped pioneer the concept of women going back to the workforce after a career break, flexible work methods and job shares. A number of years into the business Stephanie also took a quarter of the company into the hands of the staff at no cost to them. 

The fight for gender equality in the workplace did not prove to be a smooth ride. In business development letters Stephanie went by the name of ‘Steve’ in order to get through the front doors of prospective clients. Even as the company went from success to success, criticism and scepticism was relentless. Stephanie’s team of women – including gay and transgender women who faced arguably even more entrenched prejudice – went on to programme the black box flight recorder of the supersonic concorde. It was done by “a bunch of women working in their own homes” says Stephanie with a glint in her eye.

After equal opportunities legislation was introduced in 1974, Freelance Programmers “had to let the men come in”. The company went on to be valued at $3bn. Using much of the money she received from selling off the company Stephanie founded The Shirely Foundation and has gone on to become a very widely respected philanthropist. In 2000 she was made Dame Commander in the New Years Honours list and between 2009 and 2010 Dame Stephanie served as the UK’s Ambassador for Philanthropy.

“I don’t measure success in financial terms,” she says. The Shirley Foundation is now among the top 50 grant-giving foundations in the UK and has given over £60m to more than 100 philanthropic projects. It is currently focussing on funding research into the causes of autism and in improving support for people living with autism. Stephanie’s son Giles developed severe autism as a young child. 

“Autism is a disorder that has come to dominate our lives,” says Stephanie. “The only time I forgot Giles was when I was working and the only time I forgot work was when I was with Giles. It sort of balanced itself.”

When asked about her level of interest in social investment, Dame Stephanie explains that she has suggested the concept at board meetings for her foundation but that the trustees had said ‘no’. They said that “their first priority was to get the very best return that they could then give away”. 

“I was disappointed, because it seemed to me right and proper to invest what money we had and were not spending this year to go into socially desirable investments.” 

Dame Stephanie Shirley isn’t a household name, but at the age of 81 her resolve to continuously create social impact is unshakable and her legacy in the development of gender inequality in the workplace and tech industry continues to influence today. 


Photo credit: Matthew Herring