Returning with passion

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH gave an inspiring keynote address at Women Returners’ annual conference yesterday, and said experience of raising a family was valuable in the workplace.


Having a career that has been interrupted “does not make women or men any less capable and should not be a deterrent when for those wanting to go back to work at the appropriate time”, a working mums pioneer told the Women Returners conference yesterday.

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH spoke about her achievements in setting up a pioneering IT firm for women with caring responsibilities in the 1960s.

Dame Stephanie, who is 87 and arrived in the UK aged five as a Kindertransport refugee with her sister, described how she faced overt discrimination as a woman in the workplace and how she was expected to embrace a life of children and domesticity after she married. 

However, she didn’t want domesticity and she soon realised she was not the only woman who felt that way. So she set up her software company, Freelance Programmers, from her dining room table in order to provide jobs to women like her who had children. Over time she changed ‘jobs’ to ‘careers’ and over more time she changed the kids part to dependants as she realised many women were unable to work due to elderly care or other caring responsibilities. “People laughed at us, but it worked,” she said. 

She adds that she hired without bias and disguised the part-time nature of the company’s work by quoting fixed prices for work done to clients. One of the projects they worked on was the programming of the black box flight recorder units on Concorde. The company was in the vanguard of flexible working in many ways. It was at the start of the homeworking revolution. It had perhaps one of the first job shares – a husband and wife team. It also pioneered co-ownership. “We made it possible for women to work from home,” said Dame Stephanie. This was before computers so people had to have access to a telephone. Dame Stephanie herself admitted that she only had access to a party line. Work was sent by post and had to be transferred to cards and paper tape. She spoke of how she had changed her name to Steve to be taken seriously because company letters signed by Stephanie did not get a response.

She compared the ease with which people can work from home today and the lack of overt bias, but said other forms of more subtle, hidden bias had crept in.  She praised good employers who were addressing barriers to diversity and who were aware of the links between a diverse workforce and innovation.

Dame Stephanie told returners at the conference that they should search for ways around any obstacles in their way, that they shouldn’t worry that their skills were out of date because change is so rapid these days that everyone’s skills are in danger of being out of date and because there were lots of free online courses which could boost their confidence and their employment chances. Many skills could be taught and what companies were interested in was more to do with whether a person’s values matched the company values, she stated. Virtual working is supported by various apps and tools. “We are all in tech nowadays,” she said, adding that the skills needed for working in remote teams include an ability to communicate clearly and honestly and an ability to keep promises and respond promptly.

Dame Stephanie said she loved her work and never wanted to stop, but she has taken a long look at her skills and realised that, although she has been an excellent leader and technician, she is only a competent manager. Over the last 11 years she has looked to relinquish day to day control of her company and she admits this has been a painful process even though she felt to some extent “imprisoned” by her responsibilities. 

She now devotes herself to her philanthropic work and now describes that decision to walk away as “a release”. In fact, she has named her recent autobiography “Let it go”. She adds that giving her money away has been as fulfilling as earning it. “It brings meaning,” she says.

She ended her keynote address to the conference by telling her returner audience that they were strong and inspiring women and she quoted the words of the late lawyer Ruth Ginsberg: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

*If you would like Dame Stephanie to personally sign a copy of her memoir ‘Let It Go’ for you – with a dedication or a message, she would be delighted. All you have to do is go to and donate a minimum of £12.50 per book, then email with proof of your donation, your name, address and message and Lynn will do the rest and post the book to you.

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