Pushing the Boundaries

Dame Stephanie Shirley: Freelance Programmer

Dame Stephanie Shirley left her first main computing related job because of frustrations that she could not progress her career, not because of her talent but because of her gender.

She was one of the UK's first software startups, dedicated to employing women software developers working part-time from home, which went on to be hugely successful.

In this film she shares her inspirational story. Produced by Google as part of a series of short films highlighting women's involvement in the early days of computing.

“We would always try to present ourselves as professionally as possible which included answering the phone at home with a tape playing a background track of typewriters so as to cover any noises of the baby in the background.”

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Teaching Point: Why do you think that Shirley felt she had to leave such a key computer company in orderto progress her career?

“ What I learnt after a short time was that no matter what I tried to do I got blocked. So I set up a company that not only was entirely made up of women but also allowed them to work from home. We were laughed at by many at the time and for a range of reasons. ”

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Teaching Point: Why did Stephanie feel the need to disguise her domestic setting so as to appear ‘professional’ to new clients interested in her computer programming skills?

“ Eventually we let men in to the company, but only if they were good enough! ”

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Teaching Point: What change in the law designed to help women meant that Stephanie had to change her successful company?

How significant were women at the start of modern computing?

“ Bletchley Park saw equality between men and women long before wider society. The best person to do the job got the job – it did not matter whether they were a man or woman. ”

Michael Smith

Teaching Point: Why does Joanna think her gender was unimportant when working with Colossus?

How significant were women at the start of modern computing?

“ It’s really rather nice to feel that I was a pioneer but I already felt like a pioneer being involved in such early programming of computers. ”

Mary Coombs

Teaching Point: Do you think Mary derives greater satisfaction from being the first female commercial computer programmer or being involved in early pioneering computing activity?