12 February 2019

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH - equality in tech

Dame Stephanie Shirley – image from http://www.steveshirley.com/

In the 1960s, to write code, the team at a software company would have to plot it out on pencil and paper. This was then sent out in the post to a data centre, where it would be punched, then punched again to ensure there were no mistakes. This was all before it got anywhere near a computer.

That company was set up by Dame Stephanie Shirley CH. Dame Stephanie, also known as Steve, is living proof of just how much has changed in the software industry since the 1960s. Yet, she is also proof of just how little has changed in some areas.

She set up a software house, later called Xansra and now part of the Sopra Steria Group. This business was set up as a company of women, for women. Back then, a woman couldn’t open a bank account without her husband’s permission. Working in technology wasn’t really an option.

Rather than being stuck at the ‘glass ceiling’, Stephanie set up her own business and pioneered practices that help women return to work after having children. In her TED Talk she says: “Who’d have thought that the black-box recorders for the supersonic Concorde would have been done by a bunch of women working in their own homes.”

Her story is remarkable and it astonishes me that it is not wider known.

Equality and balance

When equality legislation was introduced, Dame Stephanie had to welcome men into her all-female team, in direct juxtaposition of what the legislation had initially been designed to do; bringing more women into the workplace. An interesting turn of events for someone who set up a business purely to give opportunity to an under-represented group.

Despite her remarkable success, making many of her team millionaires and amassing her own substantial wealth, she still jokes that you can spot an ambitious woman from the shape of their heads. They’re ‘flat on top from being patted patronisingly’. She had been ‘written off’ in the 1970s because of her gender. It was expected that as soon as she married she would quit her job immediately.

It’s strange to think that characters like Stephanie were effectively written out of the history books of computer programming. We’re only just starting to recognise the impact that she and countless other women had on the industry to this day.

Redressing the balance

Whilst there are so many initiatives to encourage more gender balance in the tech industry there’s also still such a huge imbalance. Just 17% of people working in technology in the UK are female. It’s astounding to think just how low that number is. It is also estimated that just 7% of students studying computer science at A-level are female.

Is the industry broken when it comes to gender balance? Are businesses giving people the opportunities that they need?

For Gail and me, it is almost an alien concept when you consider that we’re equal within UKFast, and have built the business as such. We have a 50/50 split on the board and at senior management level. We’re striving to see this across the whole business. Yet in the technical areas of the team, this number is less balanced. We see more male graduates, more male applicants.

To address this, we’re looking closely at our recruitment process. Is it reaching everyone? And we’re working with schools and universities across the region to encourage more people – regardless of gender – to take steps into the tech industry.

It’s also why we built the crèche, launched an improved maternity package and welcome flexibility with childcare. This is undoubtedly one of the barriers for working mothers.

It’s astonishing to think of how little has changed when you look at the gender split in the industry. However, it should also be a wake-up call for businesses in tech. It’s beyond time to look at how they approach recruitment, employee engagement, maternity/paternity and childcare provisions. We need to take a holistic view of addressing the gender gap – it’s not a quick win.

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