In the 1960s and 1970s, opportunities for women to have careers in computing beyond clerical work were virtually nonexistent. Dame Stephanie (“Steve”) Shirley founded Freelance Programmers in 1962 to offer women who were busy with elder care or child-rearing a means of earning a living, as well as developing professionally as computer programmers. The company was created by a woman for women.
Originally a Kindertransport child, Shirley came to the United Kingdom with her sister Renate in July 1939 at five years old, “terrified and weeping,” and spent her early years living a serene existence in the English Midlands and then near the Welsh border. She studied mathematics by attending classes at the local boys school, since that subject was not offered at her (girls) school.
In the 1950s, after graduating high school, she worked at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill (where World War II code-breaking machines had been built). Taking evening classes for six years, she obtained an honors degree in mathematics and married physicist Derek Shirley in 1962.
Starting her company at her kitchen table with just a few pounds investment, the company grew quickly and, by 1975, had over 300 programmers, 297 of them women.
The company, which had become F International, was floated on the London Stock Exchange (after Shirley had given many shares to her employees) and changed its name to Xansa in 2001. She retired in 1993 and has since been very active in philanthropy via the Shirley Foundation, particularly for charities supporting research into autism and emerging technologies. As well as receiving dozens of honors, Shirley is former president of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She has given away most of her wealth to philanthropic causes, including a gift of £10 million to found the Oxford Internet Institute.