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How Dame Shirley Jumped Over Tech's Gender Gap In The 1960s

Amid the calls to "lean in" and endless head-scratching over how technology companies can recruit and retain women, the statistics — and their refusal to budge — are sober reminders that tech still has a gender problem. Women head only 3 percent of startups and represent only 20 percent of software developers.

But imagine launching a tech company as a woman in the 1960s, when tech companies — let alone female programmers — were virtually unheard of.

That's exactly what Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley did when she founded "freelance programmers," one of the U.K.'s first software startups, which was also managed and operated almost entirely by women. And no, that's not a typo; Shirley wittily printed the company's name in all lowercase because it had no capital — literally. Yet in 1996, it went public for hundreds of millions of pounds on the London Stock Exchange.

Born Vera Buchthal, Shirley fled Nazi Germany in 1939, when she was just 5 years old. Her biological parents put her on a train to England as part of Kindertransport, a rescue mission to place 10,000 Jewish children refugees in British foster care. Her foster parents renamed her Stephanie.

"The fact that I nearly died in the Holocaust means that I'm very motivated to make sure ... that my life was worth saving," Shirley said in a short documentary produced by Google. She added, "I had built a determination that I was not going to let other people define me."

Shirley fulfilled her promise from the outset, developing a knack for numbers at her all-girls school, which didn't teach math or science. She eventually transferred to a boys' school for the math instruction she craved.

She began working at the Post Office Research Station in London in 1951, the lone woman among roughly 2,000 male employees. She worked on trans-Atlantic telephone cables and developing the first electronic telephone calls, among other projects. In the evenings, she studied for her bachelor's degree in mathematics at Sir John's College.

In the late 1950s, Shirley landed a software developer position with computer manufacturer ICL, where she "became besotted ... with the computing industry," she said in the Google documentary. She loved how mathematicians, scientists and engineers alike exchanged ideas over coffee in the company canteen. "We were not in little silos," she said.

But a few years later, Shirley hit the glass ceiling: "No matter what I tried to do there, I was getting blocked." So she founded freelance programmers in 1962 with the ethos of providing jobs for women with children. During phone calls with clients, Shirley drowned out the sound of her baby with a tape recording of someone clicking on a typewriter.

The startup offered consulting services in programming techniques, creating standards that were used to develop and test software. They also applied statistical techniques to determine the time required to complete various projects for clients ranging from British Railways to Mars Chocolate.

Obstacles abounded. No one responded to the letters she wrote offering her consulting and programming services; her husband suggested signing them with her family nickname: Steve. "Things began to take off," she said. Later she traded skirts for gray suits when a minister of state pinched her buttocks while she was trying to sell him an IT contract.

Shirley's company grew to about 300 programmers. All except three were women, until the U.K.'s Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 required her to hire more men.

When her company peaked in the 1980s — after being renamed F.I. Group — she was worth £150 million.

At home, Shirley struggled to care for her son, Giles, who had severe autism and epilepsy. She and her husband tended to him in shifts. At one point, both contemplated suicide, she told The Telegraph in 2011. Eventually a nervous breakdown landed Shirley in the hospital for several weeks. Giles died of an epileptic seizure in an institution in 1998, at age 35.

After retiring in 1993, Shirley devoted her life to philanthropy, donating most of her money to autism research foundations and upholding her childhood pledge to make the most of her second chance at life.

Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with eye to all things science, medicine and more. Like? Distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.

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Melissa Pandika
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