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Women-In-STEM Pioneer: You Can Always Tell An Ambitious Woman By The Shape Of Her Head

In the 1960s, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley founded an enormously successful software company that employed mostly women. At TED 2015, she talked about her experiences constantly hitting the glass ceiling (and what happens to the heads of ambitious women).

Women-In-STEM Pioneer: You Can Always Tell An Ambitious Woman By The Shape Of Her Head
[Photos: via TED]

On average, tech companies employ just over 13% female engineers. The ones that are employed don’t usually stick around; over half of women in science, technology, and engineering step away from their careers–often in their 30s–largely because of rampant sexism in the industry.

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No one know more about this than Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, a British Holocaust refugee who founded a software company, called F.I. Group, in 1962. On the TED 2015 stage, Shirley spoke about her experiences being a pioneer for women in STEM–and hitting the glass ceiling “too often.”

Shirley launched F.I. Group–initially, an almost all-female company–because it was so difficult for women to get jobs at the time. “People laughed at the idea of it. Software at the time was given away free with hardware, and [people thought] no one would buy it, and certainly not from a woman,” she said.


Nonetheless, she forged ahead, hiring qualified women to work from home who had initially left the workforce after having a child, and pioneering the concept of women going back into the workforce after a career break. She did something else unorthodox: giving a quarter of the company to her employees, eventually making many of them millionaires.

“Who would have guessed the programming of black box flight recorders or the supersonic Concorde would have been done by a bunch of women working in their own homes?” she asked.

Programming at the time was nothing like it is today. The women worked with pencil and paper to create flow charts defining the tasks that needed to be done, then wrote out code and sent it by mail to a center, where it was punched onto a card and finally sent to a computer.

Running the business was never easy. Shirley changed her name from Stephanie to Steve when writing business letters, so that she could get through the door at meetings before people realized she was a woman. “You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads. They’re flat on top from being patted patronizingly,” she said.

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In 1975, thanks to equal opportunity legislation in the UK, her pro-female policy became illegal, and she had to start hiring men.

At the peak of her success, Shirley was worth over $221 million. Now she’s a full time philanthropist.

Her advice to others? Surround yourself with quality people and choose your partner carefully. The other day, she said to a friend, “My husband is an angel.” The woman’s response? “You’re lucky. My husband is still alive!”

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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