How Dame Stephanie Shirley upended tech world sexism in the 1960s

Mar 17, 2015 /

Fact is, women still lack equality in most fields in 2015. Sexism and the glass ceiling (with or without its cracks) are a familiar if silent presence in our workplaces. Whether you’re man, woman, or other, you know that there’s a way to go before the playing field is actually leveled.

How far we’ve come, however, is entirely due to the efforts of women like Dame Stephanie Shirley, who founded the female-only software company Freelance Programmers in Britain in 1962. She did so because she wasn’t getting where she wanted in her previous tech job — “no matter what I tried to do there, I was getting blocked.” So her company employed women, many of whom worked from home, because they were smart and got the jobs done, jobs that used their expertise in software programming to work with industrial companies like Tate & Lyle.

But what’s truly wonderful about Dame Stephanie is her spirit. When equal opportunities legislation forced a change of structure to her business, she recalls tartly, “We did let the men in … as long as they were good enough.” As the video below shows, her feisty punchiness remains intact to this day. Introduced at TED Women 2013 by Megan Smith, now chief technical officer of the United States, Dame Steve (so known because when she started signing the male version of her name, she miraculously started to be taken seriously as a businessperson) is a firecracker and an inspiration.