Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley, DBE, FREng, FRSA, FBCS

Published 8th March 2022

IWD 2022 campaign theme is #BreakTheBias

Imagine a gender equal world.

A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

Together we can forge women's equality.

Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.

To Celebrate the 2022 International Woman’s Day, The Design and Technology Association are broadcasting a special ‘Designed for Life’ Podcast interview with Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley, DBE, FREng, FRSA, FBCS, is a British information technology pioneer, businesswoman and philanthropist.

Grab a cup of tea and sit back and listen to the story of this amazing woman

Shirley was born as Vera Buchthal to a Jewish father, a judge in Dortmund who lost his post to the Nazi regime, and a non-Jewish Viennese mother. At the age of 5 she arrived together with her 9-year-old sister Renate in Britain unaccompanied in July 1939 as a Kindertransport child refugee. She was placed in the care of foster parents.

In order to study mathematics, which was not taught at the school, she received permission after assessment to take lessons at the local boy’s school.  At the age of 18 she became a British citizen and changed her name to Stephanie Brook.  In the 1950s she worked at the Post Office Research Station, building computers from scratch, and writing code in machine language.  She took evening classes for six years to obtain a degree in mathematics. In 1959 she moved to CDL Ltd, manufacturers of the ICT 1301 computer.

In 1962, Shirley founded, with a capital of £6, the software company Freelance Programmers, (later Xansa since acquired by Steria and now part of the Sopra Steria Group). She wanted to create job opportunities for women with dependents, and predominantly employed women, with only 3 male programmers of a total of over 300, until the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made that practice illegal. She adopted the name "Steve" to help her in the male-dominated business world. Her team's projects included programming Concorde's black box flight recorder.  She retired in 1993 at the age of 60 and has since focused on her philanthropy.

Shirley was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1980 Queen's Birthday Honours and promoted Dame Commander (DBE) in the New Year Honours, 2000. In 1987, she gained the Freedom of the City of London. She was President of the British Computer Society from 1989 to 1990.  In 1985, she was awarded a Recognition of Information Technology Award. She received the Mountbatten Medal in 1999 and was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2001.

She has donated most of her wealth (from the internal sale to the company staff and later the flotation of F.I. Group) to charity during her retirement. Beneficiaries include the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the Oxford University, through the Shirley Foundation.

Her late son Giles (1963–1998) was autistic and she became an early member of the National Autistic Society. And has instigated and funded research in this field. In 2003 Shirley received the Beacon Fellowship Prize for her contribution to countering autism and for her pioneering work in harnessing information technology for the public good. In 1991, Shirley was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Buckingham, since then she has been so honoured by 27 universities. In February 2013 she was assessed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. In January 2014 the Science Council named Dame Stephanie as one of the "Top 100 practising scientists" in the UK.

In 2013, appearing on BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding, Dame Stephanie discussed why she had given away more than £67 million of her personal wealth to different projects. In her 2012 memoirs Let IT Go, she writes "I do it because of my personal history; I need to justify the fact that my life was saved." Her TED talk from March 2015 has been viewed over 1,400 000 times.

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