Talking to a returner pioneer

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is a keynote speaker at this year’s Women Returners conference. She speaks to about how she pioneered support for returners in tech and how she views all the changes happening today.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Tech and returner employer pioneer and philathropist Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is a keynote speaker at this year’s Women Returners annual conference which is being held on 12th and 13th October and aims to arm women who have taken a career break with the tools, stories and inspiration they need to return to the workplace.  She arrived in Britain in 1939 as an unaccompanied Kindertransport refugee. In 1962, she started a software house, Freelance Programmers, that recruited women who had taken caring-related breaks to work flexibly from home in tech roles. She created a global business and a personal fortune shared with her colleagues, making 70 of her staff millionaires. Since retiring in 1993, her focus has been on philanthropy based on her strong belief in giving back to society.  In 2009/10 she served as the UK’s first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy. Her charitable Shirley Foundation has initiated and funded a number of pioneering projects, totally £67m to date, focused on IT and her late son’s disorder of autism. Her memoir Let It Go was published in 2012 and has sold 27,000 copies, with a big screen film in the making. In 2013, Dame Stephanie was named by Woman’s Hour as one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain. In 2014, the Science Council listed her as one of the Top 100 practising scientists in the UK and in 2015, she was given the Women of the Year Special Award.  Her TED Talk in 2015 has received 2.1m views. In 2017, Dame Stephanie received a Companion of Honour, one of only 65 people worldwide. Here she speaks to What motivated you to start your software company and to build it up with freelancing, work-from-home women?

Dame Stephanie: I’d banged up against the glass ceiling once too often. I loved software and it was the sort of company sufficiently flexible to provide the work/life balance that I – and I knew other women with children – would want to be part of. How was this viewed at the time?

DS: It was seen as laughable. Software was then given away free with the hardware so the general view was that “no-one can sell software. Least of all a woman”. How important do you think women’s networks and building awareness of common barriers faced are for greater gender diversity in the workplace?

DS: Women’s networking, indeed networking in general, helps to support me. We exchange not just our hopes and fears but also techniques as to how to bypass the work barriers. Deliberate targets on gender mix help to measure progress. How important do you think flexible working is for more inclusive workplaces?

DS: Survey after worldwide survey as to what women seek in their employment gives high priority to flexible working. This also applies to other areas such as disability. How do you view the changes in your lifetime with regard to flexible working and gender equality?

DS: There have been terrific changes. My generation of women fought for the right to serve, the right to work and for equal pay. The barriers were then legal ones. Today, the barriers are cultural – different but actually equally difficult. Covid-19 has given a massive uplift to the amount of flexible working, largely distributed and work-from-home. Many major corporates estimate we shall average one or two days a week home based by the end of the year. Others much more. How important do you think parenting skills and varied life experience are in the workplace and do you think this is more recognised now?

DS: What are the skills of a parent? Helping your children to develop and contribute to society. Well, that’s exactly the same as working in teams for the good of the organisation. That requires emphasis on the positive, focus on others’ needs and mutual respect. The last is particularly relevant to diversity. Are these issues better recognised now? Management has moved from “Do this. Do that” to more permissive leadership so I guess the answer is Yes. Your life as an entrepreneur has been characterised as being full of ups and downs. What do you think builds resilience to change?

DS: Resilience is also to do with flexibility, springing back to normalcy after difficulties; flexing your strength; and toughness. Entrepreneurs are remembered for our successes. But actually it’s our resilience to change that defines us. What are the most potentially successful ways of getting more women into IT?

DS: Determination. Durham University decided it wanted to be the university of choice for computer women. They appointed Professor Sue Black to drive the change and within a couple of years – nothing will happen in weeks or months – but noticeably quickly, there are double the number of women applicants for STEM subjects. How do you view the work of organisations like Women Returners?

DS: Women Returners makes it easier to return to active work at a professional level. It’s practical. It’s supported by quality companies and is itself supportive. I feel totally aligned with their returners’ conference. What do you think the impact of Covid-19 might be on women returners?

DS: The digital world has never changed so fast. And on top of that we have Covid-19. Training will, I’m sure, go digital and come down in price, if it is not free. So you can ready yourself for the world of work easier. I talked about more homeworking happening already and that is expected to increase. That allows women returners to phase their re-entry to work; to fit in with family or personal wishes and (above all) gives that flexibility and work/life balance that so many of us want.

*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 [email protected] 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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