Dame Stephanie Shirley, OBE, BSc, CEng, FREng, CITP

Philanthropist, First Woman Past President of BCS and Past Master of WCIT

Dame Stephanie Shirley

In 2004, BCS honoured me with its Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d joined as a student member, upgrading to full member, then Fellow - and later served four years as Vice-President (Professional) helping to get it to chartered status. Then, in 1989, I was elected the first ever Woman President. It was a matter of enormous pride for me to head my professional body.

There’s now a revival of computing in schools and girls are getting the best marks and dominate most universities. Britain’s economy demands that all of us are not just consumers but also creators of new technologies and applications. I aim to be a positive role model to encourage critical thinking and engineering.

My years in business proved exhilarating - never two days the same; always focused on managing customers and staff. Always doing new things and making new things happen.

My colleagues, male and female, have been unfailingly likeable. Generally operating in collegiate mode and learning from each other. And I’ve been well remunerated - scarcely able to believe how well I was paid for doing something so enjoyable.

I belong to the generation when you needed mathematics to work in software. From being a glorified mathematical clerk at the Post Office Research Station, I moved to work with computers, and it was like falling in love again! I wrote programs in machine code (sometimes in binary) on projects related to transatlantic telephone cables, electronic telephone exchanges and testing the randomness of the special purpose premium bond computer, ERNIE. And no, neither my husband nor I have ever managed to win anything greater than £100!

I started off as a techie but soon found myself much more interested in the social and economic aspects of computing. And I wanted opportunities for women. So I set up a software house, a company of women, a company for women as one of the first such British start-ups. That eventually employed 8½ thousand staff of whom 70 had become millionaires. Yes, 70. It pioneered distributed computing. People laughed at the very idea of a software house - software was at that time given away free with the hardware. And they laughed even louder at my Crusade for Women!

But it was fine as a woman’s company until Equal Opportunities legislation came in and made our positive gender discrimination illegal. As an example of unintended consequences, we had to let the men in (if they were good enough!) Thereon, the company gradually became more balanced between the sexes. Which is as it should be.

My interests were scientific; the market was commercial - things such as payroll which (apart from the size of some of the files) I found boring. But operations research provided a compromise: scheduling freight cars, timetabling buses, siting oil depots. Who would have thought that the software for the black box flight recorder for the supersonic Concorde would be written by an all-female team?

It’s not just the technology. It’s about what people can do with it. Entrepreneurs with little or no expertise in technology can create amazing new global companies in this 21st century new world. The future is limited only by our imagination.

I hope my story will give confidence to women starting out in their careers. A woman can succeed in whatever she wants, provided she accepts the rules of the game and believes in herself.

So: grab the many opportunities that computing offers. There’s never been a more exciting career path offering the flexibility valued in women’s life styles. My unsolicited advice is to

  • Get trained
  • Present yourself at your aspirational level and apply for interesting tasks
  • Master finance and marketing; and get international experience
  • Think strategically about how you want to spend your life
  • Then just: Go for it!

About Stephanie

  • 1933: Born in Germany and (1939) came to UK as unaccompanied child refugee
  • 1951: Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill, studying at evening classes for B.Sc. Hons in mathematics (1956)
  • 1957: Joined BCS on its foundation as student member.  First woman President (1989/90) Lifetime Achievement Award (2004)
  • 1959: Software development for computer manufacturer
  • 1962: Founded software house of women, for women. Equal Opportunities legislation forced it to employ men (1975)
  • 1985: RITA (Recognition of Information Technology Award)
  • 1991: Gold Medal Chartered Institute of Management
  • 1992: Master of IT Livery Company (Master 1992)
  • 1992: Non-executive Director Tandem Computers Inc. (to 1997) and AEA Technology plc (to 2000)
  • 1998: Sponsored Autism99, an early cyberconference
  • 1999: Mountbatten Medal (IEE now IET)
  • 2000: Dameship for services to IT
  • 2000: Sponsored Oxford Internet Institute Strategy Board (to 2000/11)
  • 2012: Memoir Let IT Go published
  • 2013: Featured in National Museum of Computers and launched Women in Computing Gallery
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The real figures

BCS and eSkills have updated for 2014 the Women in IT Scorecard.

BCS survey

79% of IT professionals feel that the profession would benefit from having more women working in IT roles - read more results from our recent survey.

Women in IT

Three expert women in IT debate the issues and suggest some innovative solutions to the gender imbalance problem in IT. Watch the debate

Interview

Listen to an interview with Gillian Arnold, Chair of BCSWomen and Kate Russell, journalist and author, discussing why it’s important for more women to be part of the IT profession.

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