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What I Gained from Dame Stephanie Shirley

Guest Blog by Claire Woolgrove

It’s hard to say what I gained. Which, given the title of this entry, is perhaps not what you want to hear. I think the main reason for this is because of the type of life Dame Stephanie, or Steve as she prefers to be called, has led and lived. Snippets of the Oswestry LitFest event I attended stand out, but I’ll get to those later.

At a very young age Dame Stephanie was forced to leave her home in Vienna as a young German Jewish refugee on the Kindertransport. With no English and without her parents, five year old Dame Stephanie and her sister, aged just nine, were taken away from all that they knew.

At the age of twelve she moved to Oswestry. Now, this bit I can relate to. At the same age, my family moved to Oswestry. We had also moved country. So I understand a little about starting over, but clearly not to the extent that Dame Stephanie had to endure. I left Canada with my family intact and the only language barrier was limited to slang terms, colloquialisms, and impenetrable accents.

She eventually went on to form her own software company in the early 1960s and quickly found herself hitting her head on the ‘glass ceiling’. Women then did not do business. Especially not ‘serious’ entrepreneurship. Women couldn’t even open their own bank accounts without their husband’s permission. Something I was surprised to learn.

Changing her name to Steve in business correspondence gave her a foot in the door before anyone realised ‘he’ was a ‘she’. She deliberately employed only women – those who had left the IT industry due to marriage or children and wanted to return to work. Flexible hours and job sharing was the norm for Dame Stephanie’s company in the ’60s and early ’70s. She divested some of her shares and put them towards employee profit shares. Eventually she made 70 of her employees millionaires. Despite the growing success, she revealed how it rankled her that her successful company still wasn’t taken as seriously as it would have been had she been a man employing male code writers. She even joked about how women her age have flat heads from all that patronising patting.

I’ve never been patronised by others simply for being female. I have been patronised because of my own idiocy, but I think in those cases I probably deserved the raised eyebrows and sarcasm. I haven’t yet been looked down upon by my male peers because I am a woman. They haven’t dismissed my ideas or opinions out of hand because of my gender.

I have been lucky that the people I have encountered have all been open minded and intelligent. One thing that Dame Stephanie said at her LitFest appearance stuck in my mind. My generation doesn’t have any laws to fight, our problems are cultural. I do worry about a scenario where my gender and age (given that I am in my prime baby-making years) influence employers’ opinions about me. I have no way to fight that. I don’t know how. There is no law to point at and say “That’s not fair!” when you cannot prove what someone may be thinking.

I agree with what she said about how women need to be more confident in business. I think male dominated and competitive industries can be intimidating for a young woman starting out in business. It takes a certain amount of bravery to overcome this intimidation but I am determined to do it anyway. I want a career in business, specifically marketing. I think I’d be good at it. So here’s to being out of my comfort zone. My eight week internship here certainly helped my confidence. And I would also never have had the opportunity to meet an inspirational role model as Dame Stephanie Shirley without it.

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