Women in Technology: The 1960s Battle

Dame Stephanie Shirley is one of the most successful technology entrepreneurs in history. Stephanie paved the way for future generations of women in technology to have fair opportunities and equal pay. Specifically, she was the world’s first freelance programmer, founding an all-women software company in the 1960s. Most notably, her company was one of the first social businesses and virtual work environments.

At a young age, Stephanie overcame many immense challenges. At five-years-old, she was saved from Nazi Europe and moved to England without her parents. In her memoir, Let It Go, Stephanie reflected on her childhood:

“A large number of good-natured strangers took it upon themselves to save my life. It took me some years to digest this fact and its implications. But, once I had, a simple resolution took root deep in my heart: I had to make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving.”

Later in life, Stephanie took note of social injustices. In the 1960s, women could not open up bank accounts without their husband’s permission. At this time, many women were attending universities but encountered challenges and glass ceilings in the workplace. For example, women often left their careers when they got married or had children and later struggled to return to their previous careers. Societal pressures emphasized a women’s role in the home and family realm.

After experiencing these challenges firsthand, Stephanie founded her software company, Freelance Programmers, to help other women in technology navigate their career paths. Stephanie recruited a team of highly skilled female engineers to join her. In addition, Stephanie changed her name to “Steve” to overcome gender discrimination. For this reason, she was able to secure meetings before anyone could realize her gender.

Freelance Programmers offered many flexible work programs:

  • Remote work
  • Job shares
  • Profit sharing
  • Co-ownership (25% owned by employees)
  • Offering fixed prices to customers

Stephanie’s business approach was simple: trust your workers and use the telephone to communicate. Later, with an ironic turn of events, the sex discrimination act made her company’s female-only policies illegal. In 1975, the company welcomed male employees to the team.

As a result, Stephanie’s company created a value of $3 billion. Furthermore, she helped make 70 employees billionaires. Today, she is a dedicated and passionate philanthropist. To learn more about Stephanie’s inspiring story, watch her TED Talk below.