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Dame Stephanie Shirley on #MeToo: 'There is still a lot to do'

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Dame Stephanie Shirley is one of the most successful British women in technology, who paved the way for many other women to thrive in the field.

Dame Stephanie founded Freelance Programmers in 1962, a software firm that employed only women — until the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act came into effect, forcing the company to also employ men.

Freelance Programmers went on to become a huge success and, after selling the company decades later, Dame Stephanie gave away many tens of millions of pounds of her wealth to charity.

But earlier on in her career, Dame Stephanie had encountered shocking sexism.

Speaking on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show, Dame Stephanie said when she started as a junior mathematical clerk in the Dollis Hill Post Office research station she was “horrified” to find there was one pay scale for men and “another, much lower pay scale for women.”

Watch the full Dame Stephanie Shirley Global Change Agents interview here

Dame Stephanie said she decided to set up her own company having realised “you don’t have to put up with being fondled, being denigrated, people being basically smarmy — because I was a pretty young thing — but just not respected, it’s that word that one wants: respect.”

‘What one is left with is a culture that ... assumes that the average person is male’

Dame Stephanie Shirley. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK

#MeToo gained traction long after Dame Stephanie retired from the corporate world, a movement she is “delighted” took place — but, she still has her reservations about whether equality in the workplace has truly been reached.

“What I hope also is that ... the culture doesn’t sink back to where it was before when we’ve had other step functions for women,” Dame Stephanie said. “Women came into their own in World War I and were doing all sorts of exciting things, but afterwards the men came back [and that reversed]... I hope that’s not going to happen with #MeToo.”

“There is still a lot to do,” she said. “I think in the western world it’s easy to kid ourselves that it is now a cultural thing, it’s no longer legal.

“Certainly that is true in my career when the things I was fighting for — and I did become quite aggressive — were legal things: the right to work, the right to serve, the right to equal pay,” she said. “Now all those have gone. What one is left with is a culture that is still quite hostile to women and assumes that the average person is male.”

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.