Interview by Dr. Thomas Lean
We uncovered this conversation in the Oral History of British Science in the archives of the British Library. The interview was recorded at Shirley’s home in 2010.
The Animated Transcript
We started in ’62; at the end of January in ’64 we had a tiny mention in the Guardian newspaper. This extraordinary woman, Steve Shirley, writing computer programs in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies. And that was really the sort of phraseology that was used. And that brought in a flood of women who had computer skills and liked the idea of working from home.
Not particularly bossy, I had this sort of…I was vulnerable, but a high-flyer. Self-willed, undisciplined. I was a beauty. Not so much an odd ball, a one-off, one-off. Nobody else quite like me.
My sister and I, were put on a Kindertransport, one of ten trains leaving Germany and, and Austria. It was 1,000 children up to the age of sixteen and came to England with, a very traumatic journey without nationality, because Hitler had taken nationality away . You were classed as Jewish, I think if you were up to one-sixteenth Jewish. The feeling that my life was saved and for a lot of my childhood I was kept being reminded that my life had been saved, ‘Aren’t you lucky not to have gone up in smoke,’ and all that sort of thing, has made me really convinced that I have to make my life worth saving, and each day you spend as if it would be your last. It allowed me to cope with change and then eventually welcome change, and now I really like innovation, and that has I think come out in the fact that I’ve always worked in some aspect of research and done new things.
I did find the computer industry so, so fascinating. it has some of the beauty of mathematics, it has a lot of logic in it. It has a sort of puzzle element to it. made for a very fulfilling life really. You realized that you had actually created something. So, you know, if you like programming, it’s marvelous; if you don’t like it, it’s, it’s just one of those sort of mysteries in life.
I registered the name, Freelance Programmers, and, aimed to build up some sort of, little company. I certainly had no idea it was going to be as big as or as important as it was. we pioneered home working. Job sharing. Sort of flexible working. And that was just on the non-technical side. We were just at the beginning of the software industry, nobody else was really out there. We were competing against computer companies who didn’t know much about software. But neither did I really, because, how long had I been working in software? A few years.
I felt that I wasn’t really getting any responses from the letters that I was sending out to people offering services. My husband actually suggested that perhaps it was the good old-fashioned sexism. They saw a letter from Stephanie Shirley, and, it just went in the bin. So I started writing as Steve Shirley and the work did start slowly to flow in and I’ve been Steve ever since.
I’ve really moved towards a, trying to have some understanding of where the technology can impact life as distinct from what the technology is, the sort of social aspects of computing, computing in the field of disability, computers in the art, computer conservation and that theme has carried through.
During the difficult times in the business rocking in my chair with the worry about how to get out of the current mess or whatever it was, I was strengthened by the idea that I was a survivor, there was a solution, and it was up to me to find it. I think my only big project really is that I have survived as a whole individual, and feel I have made my life worth saving, and I’m very content with that.
Dame Stephanie Shirley on Sexism
“We started to employ the men after 1975, if they were good enough and that gets a roar of laughter if I’m talking to a women’s group. The business of women being the first this and the first that, means that really you are motivated to do something as well as you possibly can because if you fail, you fail for all women, and they say, ‘Well we tried one of those and she was awful.’ Ugh! Yeah. Sexism is, is, not quite as bad as anti-Semitism, but it’s pretty tough.”
“One of the comments I would make about science is that everything takes a lot longer than people believe, much, much longer. There’s more time spent on dead ends, the achievements come later. It just takes ages. I mean I was responsible for doing the first outsourcing to India, outsourcing of software development, and that took me twenty years, or it took us twenty years, not me. I was writing papers about it in 1976, and it actually happened in 1996. Twenty years. You know, and you sort of think, oh we had this brilliant flash of, we can do it.
“What I think I know about creativity is this business of keeping fresh and not burning yourself out going over and over and over again something you’re doing, and you’re just repeating and you can’t see a way out of this it’s something that comes from a painting, or a piece of music, or, a friend or… Very often I think it’s a parallel, you suddenly see the parallel between medical research into the causes of autism with research into atomic energy. The lessons that you learn from one transfer into the others and the contacts that you’ve got from one sector allow you to go and pick other people’s brains. And, we do stimulate each other, and, you know, that, that, the act of creation is, is quite… I think it’s a mystery.”
Dame Shirley: Not without controversy
Shirley has received great acclaim for leading women into the tech world, but there’s been some controversy along the way. A few years back she had these things to say about women in the workplace today:
“Today’s young women, I don’t know what they’re complaining about. You have got it lucky. Relatively speaking, you’ve got it dead easy.” – The Telegraph, 2014
“I’m really disappointed that women today are still talking about doing what I was doing 50 years ago. When things are easy, perhaps we don’t value them as much.” – The Jewish Chronicle, 2014
“Some of the young women today are so naïve…It’s partly because so many women don’t want to pay the cost of success.” – The Independent, 2014
“I am not a feminist but I have always fought for women.” – The Telegraph, 2012
A Mommy First
“Writing computer programs in between feeding her baby and washing the nappies”
That’s what Shirley read in the write up about her fledgling career back in 1964. It seemed about par for the course back then. It reminded us of Dorothy Hodgkin, winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Shirley decided to forgo university when she graduated high school because the only science course open to women at the time was botany.
Men Need Not Apply
In the beginning, Shirley’s hires were exclusively women – out of 300 staffers, only 3 were men. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made that practice illegal.
The Autism Connection
Shirley’s son Giles, born in 1963, was autistic. He died at the age of 35 in 1998. She’s spent the last 20 years, since her retirement in 1993, focusing on raising funds and awareness towards autism.
“Everything we learnt about his condition was like a skewer in our hearts. There were no places for children like Giles.” – The Telegraph, 2012
Mixology Post / Doug Moss