The pioneering British entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley has overcome institutional sexism to revolutionise the nascent British computer industry and advance the role of women in the boardroom.
Last year, Dame Stephanie was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award at the IoD Director of the Year Awards.
Shirley has led an extraordinary life. The daughter of a Jewish German father and non-Jewish Viennese mother, she arrived in Britain in 1939 as an unaccompanied five-year-old refugee, having been saved from the Holocaust by the charity of strangers who organised the two-and-a-half-day Kindertransport from Vienna.
From an early age, she repaid her gratitude with a resolve to strive academically and break down gender barriers in business. She has given away more than £67m of her personal fortune to various projects and charities.
While Shirley is a role model to many, she worries that not enough progress has been made by women in the workplace during her lifetime. “One time the law said women couldn’t work on the stock exchange, drive a bus or fly an aeroplane. That has gone but the culture remains,” she says.
“In my first job we had salary scales by age. There was one scale for men and one scale for women, which was very much lower. That has definitely gone but you still have this gender gap that people are trying to monitor, measure and put in an annual report. It’s not nearly as good as I hoped it would be.”
In an exclusive interview with Director.co.uk, Shirley discusses:
- How she used the name ‘Steve’ to win contracts for her women-only software firm Freelance Programmers, which she set up in 1962.
- Why she took her multibillion-pound consultancy company FI Group into co-ownership, with staff owning a quarter of the business.
- Her £50m investment in autism projects.
- Her fear that women are opting out of positions because they do not recognise or understand the cost of success.
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