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Dame Stephanie Shirley


There are a number of English idioms that have always irritated me. I have never been quite at ease, for example, with a culture in which to be ‘too clever by half’ counts as an insult. Another irritating and slightly more archaic phrase, though one that is still occasionally used by exasperated teachers and parents in classrooms and checkout queues, is: ‘Now don’t start’. If there were one phrase that seems to sum Steve Shirley up, it would be the three words she used to characterise herself in a recent address: ‘I start things’.

We do a good line ourselves in late starts and restarts at Birkbeck, and we ought to be in a position to know that the starters-up of this world are often those who have themselves had unpromising beginnings. Stephanie Shirley’s was certainly one such. She arrived in this country as a five-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939. After her father, a judge, was interned as a German citizen, she and her sister were brought up by a British foster family. Despite her clearly-evident talent for mathematics, and prompted, perhaps, by the displaced person's instinct for security, she decided against going to university and took a job in the Post Office’s research department, eventually working with Ernie, the computer that picked the weekly premium-bond winners. It was while working at the Post Office that she studied for her BSc in Mathematics at Birkbeck in the evenings. She moved from the Post Office into the computing company ICL, but realising that, as in so many other companies at this time, the glass ceiling was so low it could feature in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, she left shortly afterwards. Writing off for other jobs, she found that the suspicion of women in the world of information technology was widespread. It was only when, at the suggestion of her husband, she began to sign her name as Steve rather than Stephanie Shirley that the invitations to interview began to come: even then she had dropping jaws to contend with as she entered the interview room.

So, one evening in 1962, with a first child in the offing, Steve Shirley cleared away the dishes, totted up her assets (they came to £6.00) and dashed off on the dining-room table a plan for a new and different kind of company. The company she founded was called Freelancers International, and its aim was to link together female programmers and software designers working flexibly from home to supply computer software services. Like many a Birkbeck student, especially those who must balance family, academic and professional responsibilities, she saw ways of taking advantage of the very complexity and discontinuity that can paralyse women’s lives. It was a company run by a woman exclusively for women; although equal opportunities legislation would make this impossible in the 1970s, 80% of the board and a substantial majority of the workforce are still female.

It is hard to remember how much working practices and structures in the 1960s still depended on principles of hierarchy, discipline and mutual suspicion between employer and employee. Steve Shirley had a notion that working could be very different, and that more flexible and dynamic styles of leadership and communication would actually be not only a great deal more pleasurable all round, but also, and for that very reason, more productive. ‘I had a concept’, she has said, ‘that you could actually trust people and that people want to do good work, they want to be helped to do good work and that by giving them flexibility they could manage themselves and come up with their own ideas as to how to improve their performance.’

Even more importantly, Steve Shirley was one of the first to see the powerful affinity between the way her company was organised and what it was making: the form of dispersed working that she pioneered mimicked and built on the distributed and decentred nature of the very technologies that these women were working to develop. Although in those days widespread electronic connectivity was still a visionary gleam, it might be said that FI was in itself a kind of warrant of the future: a human internet. It is fitting that the kind of programming work and software development on which the women involved in the FI group were engaged would be helping to build the infrastructure for the huge revolution in communications and social relations that we know as the internet, a revolution that itself has done so much to open up and secure opportunities for women in the workplace.

Stephanie Shirley devoted thirty years of her life to the FI group. When she retired from it, in September 1993, it was one of the largest companies of its type in the country. She remains honorary life president of the company, which is now known as Xanxas. But somebody who has got used to making so many improbable things come about was unlikely to be content for long in the potting shed, and she quickly sought new outlets for her energy and vision. She has strong views about the ethical responsibilities of the private enterprise system and has contributed forcefully to public debate in this area, warning, for example, that ‘a technical view of reality in the end leads to a technical view of people’, and declared that ‘computer applications that undermine the human condition are obscene’.

But it is the vast range of charity work that has absorbed most of her energies since the early 1990s. She has a passionate interest in supporting the rational and responsible development of information technology. In 1998, she donated £5 million to secure the future of the Worshipful Company for Information Technologists, the 100th livery company set up by the City of London. Another recent donation has been the gift of £10 million in 2001 to help launch an Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. The institute will bring together political scientists, lawyers, medics, economists and computing scientists to carry out research and make policy recommendations regarding the effects of the internet on society, culture and industry.

Most of the causes supported by the Shirley Foundation, which she set up after she retired from the FI group, have been medical and educational. So far, the Foundation has given away over £25 million to 30 charitable causes and projects. During all of this time, she had been caring for her autistic son Giles, an experience which has given her a strong interest in promoting awareness of and better provision for sufferers from autism. This led her to set up the Kingswood Trust, and then, more recently, to the gift of £15 million to set up Prior’s Court School in Berkshire, which educates autistic children from the age of 3 to 16.
Alongside her highly visible campaigning work on behalf of autistic people Steve Shirley remains active in political and business life. She is a non-executive director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and of Tandem Computers Inc and has recently been appointed to the board of the John Lewis Partnership. She was made a Dame in the millennial Honours list for her services to information technology. After toying with the idea of insisting on being called Sir Steve Shirley, she accepted the honour, perhaps on the grounds that there really is nothing like a Dame.

Steve Shirley is one of the outstanding business women of the world, who regularly cleans writers out of superlatives, and also attracts more than her fair share of clichés: my partner has told me that if I dare to inflict the word ‘feisty’ on her today, I needn’t bother coming home. We honour today the courage, the integrity, the tenacity and the generosity of this amazing woman. And perhaps most of all, we salute her vision. As so many Birkbeck graduates have found, and as her life shows, once you start starting things, it’s hard to stop. I am full of pride to be standing beside her on this platform, and I ask you to join me in welcoming her as a fellow of Birkbeck College.