Dame Stephanie Shirley: 'Success has a cost. Women today are so naïve'

Britain's first Ambassador for Philanthropy on why women today really have 'got it dead easy'

Margareta Pagano
Sunday 24 August 2014 00:00
Dame Stephanie Shirley is stirring trouble again
Dame Stephanie Shirley is stirring trouble again

Dame Stephanie Shirley is stirring trouble again. Her latest bombshell arrived quietly, tucked away in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle, in which she said young women of today have "got it dead easy" compared with those of her own generation.

What's more, she said 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.

The 80-year-old entrepreneur's comments caused a stir, with some papers lapping up her views while feminists saw red.

Was she surprised by the reaction? "Amazed, actually. Some of the young women today are so naïve and I'm disappointed they are still talking about doing what I was doing 50 years ago." It's partly because so many women don't want to pay the cost of 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." At her most frantic she admits to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.

"Many women don't want to go there and I have sympathy with that; they have a choice. But they shouldn't complain; either you believe in equality or you don't. I most certainly do."

And she always did; whether it was using the nickname "Steve" to sign business letters to potential clients because they were not responding to her, or when men at work put their arms around her and pinched her bottom. Her response was to shout loudly: "Take your hands off me."

Fighting paid off: Dame Stephanie, or Steve to those closest to her, went on to create a multibillion-pound IT software consultancy, the F1 Group, from which she made a £150m fortune. Since retiring, she has devoted her life to giving away most of her wealth – up to £135m – to autism research, and in 2009 was honoured for her largesse by being made the UK's first Ambassador for Philanthropy.

Autism, its causes and new treatments, has been close to her heart since her only son, Giles, suffered from a severe form of the condition, dying aged 37. If you wantto be moved, read her autobiography, Let It Go, now released as an audio download.

Her fight has been a long one. As a clever young mathematician, she had to give up her job as an experimental software programmer at the Post Office, after marrying a colleague, physicist Derek Shirley.

"Can you believe that? Married couples where not allowed to work together in the public sector. But it worked out well because I used my tiny pension to pay for the wedding.

"Then, after working for another company, I had an idea. I decided to start my own company, selling software. That doesn't sound controversial today, but it sounded mad 50 years ago. With just £6, I set up my business from the dining table."

That was 1962 and she was 29. The company was Freelance Programmers and, mainly because of the workplace misogyny she had faced, she employed only women software specialists, and, even more shocking for the time, women working from home. It was serious stuff: her team programmed Concorde's black box flight recorder, among other projects.

It was the US "black power" racial equality movement that inspired her, rather than feminism. "I hadn't heard of feminism then. But what I do see today is the black community is going through similar prejudices to what women suffered in the 1960s."

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. When F1 was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1996, a few years after she retired, it was worth £121m. At its peak in 2000, Xansa as it was then renamed, was valued at £1.2bn and employed 6,000 people.

Even more unusual for the time, she gave a huge chunk of her shares away to the staff who ended up owning more than half the company. Seventy became millionaires.

"There are two things I am proud of – employing women at a time when they couldn't find work and giving away shares in the business. I was an early admirer of John Lewis, and saw how giving people ownership changes their relationship to work. What is surprising is that more entrepreneurs don't do this today."

Steve is but one of many personas; she was born Vera Buchtal to a gentile mother and German Jewish judge in Dortmund, Germany. They had fled to Vienna, and only weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, her parents put her and her nine-year-old sister on one of the Kindertransport trains taking 1,000 refugee children across Europe to London to escape the Nazis.

"I remember arriving at Liverpool Street station; it was July but it was dull and grey. There were big bags of straw all around and the air was sickly with the smell of unwashed children. We had no idea what to expect. We were tired, hungry and traumatised," she says.

What she found, however, was a wonderful childless family who fostered her and her sister in the West Midlands where she lived until she was 18, even though both her parents survived the war. Later she took Brook – from her love of the poet Rupert Brooke – as her naturalised name.

Her refugee experience left a deep impression on her. "The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I'm motivated to make sure that each day is worth living, that my life was worth saving. I was determined not to let other people define me, to break through, to build something new and to not be put off by the conventions of the day."

Nor is there any sign of her stopping. She's setting up a new think-tank bringing together autism experts from around the world, because research is at a tipping point.

For her holiday this week she is off to Devon with her husband of 54 years, Derek, to a new training hotel where they employ people with disabilities such as autism. "I like to keep learning, and like to do real things."

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