To mark International Women’s Day 2021, two iconic female tech innovators, Dame Stephanie Shirley CH and Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE, FRS, FREng share stories, memories, and valuable insights with the outgoing BCS President, Rebecca George OBE.

Two Dames talk tech: 8 key takeaways
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Dame Stephanie Shirley CH

Dame Steve Shirley, also known as Steve, is a workplace revolutionary and a successful IT entrepreneur turned philanthropist. She set up a company, Freelance Programmers, in 1962, which, at the time, employed predominately women. She went on to build a global business, before retiring and devoting her life to philanthropy. She co-authored her biography, Let It Go, published by Penguin and she recently self-published a compilation of her speeches, So to Speak.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE

Professor Dame Wendy Hall is Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton. With Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, she co-founded the Web Science Research Initiative in 2006 and is the Managing Director of the Web Science Trust, which has a global mission to support the development of research, education and thought leadership in web science.

She’s the government’s first Skills Champion for Artificial Intelligence and last year she was appointed chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute. She has also co-authored two books Hypermedia and the Web, The Theory and Practice of Social Machines and is bringing out a third book, co-authored with Dr Keiron O’Hara, called Four Internets, which will be published by Oxford University Press in June 2021.

Both Dames are previous BCS presidents. Rebecca George OBE’s presidential year is, at the time of writing, coming to an end.

1. Who owns the web?

The web, it feels, is shifting from its creators’ vision of universal good towards a mixed and potentially dark future.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE: ‘These systems are not just technology, it’s people and technology working together, to co-create the web [and] Facebook, Google, and Twitter. But we don’t feel like we have any power over these [companies]. Then we think about the way they use our data, which we give to them quite freely because we get a lot back in return.

‘The Internet is under more threat than it’s ever been. Threat from big companies, from the nation-states who want to attack us through it, from the horrible things that happen on it. The pornography, information about how to be a terrorist, child abuse and all the things that we didn’t think about as it first emerged. We thought that everyone would do good with it.

‘We’ve seen how important it is. Nobody owns the internet. It’s not a company. It is owned by us, but we have to put some faith in our governments to bring in the right regulations.’

2. Linked information, before the World Wide Web 

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE was a pioneer of hypermedia - an extension of hypertext that allowed images, videos, and animations to be linked to other content.

She wrote about it, with David Lowe in Hypermedia and the Web, in 1998. On this topic she says: ‘When the personal computers came out in the eighties, we quite quickly discovered this idea of hypermedia, which at the time was quite wacky, you know, being able to link to information that is stored on computers, using what Ted Nelson called hypertext links.

‘In those days it wasn’t considered computer science - and I was told very firmly by a professor at Southampton that there was no room for me, either in computer science or in Southampton if I didn’t go back to being what a real computer scientist was - writing compilers, or developing programming languages.

‘I met Tim Berners-Lee who was just beginning to develop the web... and I could see what was possible.’

3. COVID-19 and the World Wide Web

COVID-19 has changed how we work and keep in touch with friends and family. Suddenly the Internet and the things enabled by the World Wide Web moved from being an important part of our lives to being utterly indispensable.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE: ‘Just imagine if COVID had happened 20 or 30 years ago and we hadn’t had an internet - how would we have kept in touch with each other - how would we have known what was going on - it would have been a very different type of world.

‘When last March, everything went online, the internet stayed up. A huge testament to the people that designed it, back in the sixties and seventies - and to Tim Berners-Lee.’

4. The need for diversity in IT

Diversity and inclusion as standard: that’s the common goal for our industry. Yet women account for only 20% of IT specialists; and BAME IT professionals are less likely to be in senior roles, despite being better qualified.

Like many industries, there are complex and wide-ranging challenges we have to face. At BCS, we’re facing them together as a priority.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE: ‘Anyone who knows me, knows I’m very passionate about diversity in the broadest sense. Inclusivity is so important, and we need a more diverse industry.

Rebecca George OBE: ‘I had a brilliant session with our new Embrace group, the BCS specialist diversity and inclusion group which we set up as part of the response to Black Lives Matters. There’s a group of passionate young people who really want IT to be good for society and they want to do good things - and every single one of them volunteers. It was so inspirational, I loved it.'

5. Unconscious bias: What’s in a name?

Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley CH adopted a male moniker for practical reasons: ‘I date from the days when women really were second class citizens,’ she says. ‘When I wrote business, marketing, and development letters to potential customers, I received no reply, because a letter from a Stephanie was apparently not worthy of people’s attention.

'My dear husband suggested I use the family nickname, of Steve. Instead of this double feminine of Stephanie Shirley - I had Steve Shirley. The same letters, addressed to the same sorts of people began to get replies, I managed to get some interviews and work, and the company took off.'

6. Philanthropy and giving back

All three speakers agreed that they are enjoying, long, fruitful, and very fulfilling careers. Collectively they all agree too that they’re keen to help and encourage people who may not have been so fortunate.

Dame Steve Shirley CH: ‘I was helped when I was an unaccompanied child refugee. So many complete strangers helped me, so how could I not give back?

‘My target is to to ensure that the life that was saved from Nazi Europe, was worth saving. I try not to fritter my time away and I try to do serious things and try to do the right thing.’

7. A good read

Lockdown was the inspiration for Dame Steve Shirley CH to publish her latest book, So To Speak. She said: ‘Over the years, one of the things I’ve been doing for philanthropy has been giving speeches, for fundraising and so on. When lockdown started, I really began to think well, what shall I do if I can’t go out and give speeches?

I decided to make an anthology of the speeches that I have given over the last forty years and selected twenty-nine. It’s almost like a biography... about my philanthropy, women in business, my refugee start. I’ve given these speeches all over the world, to people who really want to have meaning in their lives.’

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE has a new book coming out this summer, Four Internets, written with Dr Kieron O’Hara: ‘It is about the geopolitical pressures on the internet that could see it broken up. For us, the preciousness of it is that it is one system that everyone can do everything on it. If it does break up, then it ceases to be an internet in the sense of how it was designed to be.’

8. The video was recorded for International Women’s Day 2021 - and the theme was #choose to challenge:

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE: ‘Thirty years after I started in this industry the number of women is still staggering low. My challenge is: ‘We are fifty percent.’

Dame Steve Shirley CH: ‘IT is important but it’s not everything. My aim is to understand what’s happening with the environment. so this year I’m going to get educated about the natural world.’