Trailblazing women of UK tech: Dame Steve Shirley

Orla Browne, February 13, 2019 3 min read

Ever heard of the Dame with a man’s name, who made loads of money by empowering women in tech? Dame Steve Shirley has been making money and taking names since the 1960s. One of the UK’s most successful and pioneering entrepreneurs, she’s a legit millionaire, genius, icon, philanthropist 💅.

A Kindertransport refugee, Dame Stephanie Shirley arrived in the UK from Germany at age five, with her nine year old sister.

Brought up by a family in the Midlands, Stephanie was a bright child, with an anachronistic love for Maths. Her girls’ high school only taught those things considered of use to promising young women at the time (you know, sewing etc.), so Stephanie had to get special permission to attend classes at the local boys school instead.

After leaving school Stephanie got a job at the Post Office (a network used to route all communications and non-physical interactions before the internet) where she learned to build and code computers. And she got a Maths degree in her spare time.

Eventually Stephanie decided to set out on her own, and start a business. With £6 in founding capital, she founded Freelance Programmers from her kitchen table. At the time when a woman wasn’t allowed to work as a bus driver, or open a bank account without her husband’s permission, Stephanie exclusively employed women as software engineers. 

While others were laughing at the prospect of starting a dedicated software company – many thought software was not something people would pay for, rather it was given away free with hardware – Stephanie was quietly building one of the most cutting-edge and socially progressive companies in the country. Freelance Programmers’ employees worked largely from home, could work part-time and as flexibly as necessary. They got a share of the profits and a share of the business. Underestimated at every stage, Dame Stephanie has famously said “You can always tell successful women by the shape of our heads; they’re flat on top from being patted patronisingly.”

To say that women working highly-skilled jobs while simultaneously tending to children was not the norm, is something of an understatement. To present accepted views of productively and professionalism, many of the engineers would play tape tracks of fast-clacking typewriters while on client calls, to mask the sounds of infants. In order to start getting responses to her business development letters, Stephanie started signing with her nickname – Steve.

As Steve put it, “who’d have thought that the programming of the black box flight computer of the supersonic Concorde, would be done by a bunch of women in their own homes”. Steve did obviously, because like any entrepreneur of note, she saw and did things differently. 297 of Freelance Programmers’ first 300 employees were women, but when workplace discrimination legislation was introduced in the UK in the 1970s, they somewhat ironically had to start employing men, “as long as they were qualified”. Freelance Programmers went on to employ 8,500 people. When the company floated on the stock market for $3 billion, over 70 employees became millionaires.

After years making a ton of money, Steve has dedicated her life after business to giving it all away again. A relentless philanthropist, Dame Steve Shirley has funded pioneering research and life changing initiatives for the autism community, of which her late son was a member. She funded the creation of the Oxford Internet Institute for the study and exploration of social and computer sciences, and the purchase of the home of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. As she put it in her TED talk, “philanthropy is all that I do now. I need never worry about getting lost as several charities would quickly come and find me.” In all Dame Steve Shirley has given away over £70m.

Dame Steve Shirley is a true British icon, and a living lesson that with drive and belief you can change the world against the odds. When asked for advice on achieving success she offered simply “surround yourself with first class people, and people that you like.” Sounds good to us, Steve.

Women in tech, App & Software Development, Tech For Good, Late Stage