Stephanie Shirley may as well be the female Bill Gates —yet no one knows about her.

Born as Vera Buchthal in Nazi occupied Germany, at the age of five she was sent to Britain as a child refugee and grew up under the care of foster parents.

After leaving school, Shirley decided not to go to university. She recalls, “Botany was the only science then available to my gender.” She sought employment in a mathematics/technical environment. At the age of 18, she became a British citizen and changed her name to Stephanie Brook.

Instead of going to school, Stephanie worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, building computers from scratch and writing code in machine language. She took evening classes for six years to obtain an honours degree in mathematics.

In 1962 Shirley decided she was sick of hitting the glass ceiling for women in the tech industry and she founded an all-female software startup called Freelance Programmers with the capital of £6. She was 29.

She hired women who had left the workplace after getting married or having children. To get business, she often signed her name “Steve” instead of “Stephanie” in letters. “In those days, I couldn’t open a bank account without my husband’s permission,” Dame Stephanie says. “My generation of women fought the battles for the right to work and the right for equal pay.”

She recalls her sacrifices for success…

“I remember friends being surprised I had never been to the National Theatre. But when I was setting up my business, there was never time for such things. There is a price for success, whether it’s in business or as an artist: the cost to your health, family and life can be enormous.”

Fast-forward a decade or so to the 1980s and Dame Stephanie and her thousands of freelancers were writing software for the UK’s top FTSE 100 companies. Another one of her team’s projects included programming Concorde’s black box flight recorder.

Freelance Programmers was ultimately valued at $3 billion, making Dame Stephanie and 70 of her employees millionaires.

In a recent interview with The Jewish Chronicle, Shirley expressed her disappointment with the women’s fight for equality in today’s workplace. She stated, “Women have nothing to complain about, as all the legal obstacles holding them back have been removed; it is their own reluctance to fight in the workplace that is the real problem.

Today, she has given away at least £67 million to more than 100 philanthropic projects.

Photo via PBS (Blank on Blank)

Lauren Martin
Founder of Words of Women

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