“My name is Steve” / "Mi nombre es Steve"

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Categories: leadership, women


"Leadership has masculine traits"

"Technology is not for women"

"Entrepreneurs are men"

Women still today continue dealing with prejudices, stereotypes and difficulties in our professional development. What has been metaphorically referred to as "Crystal Roof", "Crystal Labyrinth" or "Sticky Floor", is still valid in the XXI century.

However, we could not complain if we compare it with what the courageous women who preceded us have had to fight to open a path for us and make great advances.

One of these brave women is the talented Stephanie Shirley, who had to change her name to "Steve" to be received in the business world of the United Kingdom in the '60s.

At that time, women couldn’t even drive a truck or open a bank account without their husband's permission. Imagine the difficulty to enter into the workforce. Those who achieved it have had to survive with the fear of sexual harassment on a regular basis.

Stephanie Shirley, who born in Germany, terrified at the age of 5 years old, in 1939, arrived in England as a Jewish refugee, escaping the Holocaust with her 9-year-old sister Renata. Having escaped from Germany to Austria, his parents raised the two little sisters to the Kindertransport program, famous for having saved a large number of children from the terrible fate that would await them in the Europe of the Nazis. Stephanie and Renata were received by a kind couple who resided close to London.

In her book "Let it Go," Shirley says that being a refugee and saving herself from the Holocaust marked her life in such a way that she decided to make sure that each day was worth living. According to her own words: "I was determined not to allow other people to define me, to open my way by myself, to build something new and not be discouraged by the conventions of the day."

Being that she liked math very much and, at that time the most scientific topic being taught in schools for girls were biology, she decided to enroll in a boys' school, which was not easy for her was to start dressing as boy as a way to not to be noticed.

When she finished her high school she started working, at the same time she began her evening studies to graduate with honors in her Mathematics Degree, 6 years later.

In 1951, being only 18 years old, she was hired at the Research Station of the Post Office in Dollis Hill, at the northwest of London, the place where they had developed World War II decoding machines.  

She worked on transatlantic telephone cables and on the development of the first electronic telephone calls, among other projects.

Although she liked his work a lot, she was frustrated to see that she never received a promotion, unlike her male colleagues, whom, with less merits and qualifications obtained the promotions.

In those years Stephanie Shirley married Derek, another employee of the Post Office, making things even more difficult to her. One of them had to quit the job, and while they both had the same hierarchy at the organization, given Stephanie's frustration to see that she could not thrive in that place, she decided to try something different.

Thus, in 1962, at the age of 29, she founded her company "Freelance Programmers", with the mission of giving jobs to women, avoiding misogyny in the workplace and providing them with fair compensation, without the wage gap by gender that at that time it was far worse than now.

From the table in her dining room and with a minimal investment, Stephanie Shirley became a pioneering entrepreneur in the software development industry.

Another novelty aspect of her enterprise was the flexibility of schedules and the possibility of working from their houses that had their programmers, allowing them to balance the work with their dedication to home and family.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, in the '60s implemented the Home Office concept!

All the technology available for remote work at that time was the ground telephone line, and that was the only requirement that she asked to women during the job interviews.

It is difficult to imagine right now, at the communications revolution era, that those women wrote their programs with pencil and paper, they sent them by post mailing to the processing center, where they drilled the code on tapes or cards, to then process the first execution and debugging after that.

Stephanie tells in her book "Let it Go," that when her son was born, he sometimes cried while she was answering the phone and talking with clients. Trying they would not realize that she was working from home, Shirley put the recording of a typewriter in the background so that the noise covers the crying baby.

Obviously, it was not easy to break through in a world dominated by men.

When she sent cover letters, offering consulting and programming services to potential clients, she did not even receive an answer.

She realized then that using her own name did not give her credibility and at the suggestion of her husband, she began to sign as "Steve", which gave her good results and they started receiving her at business meetings, generating great surprise when “Steve” introduced herself as a woman.

"Freelance Programmers" started to take off, employing most women with only three men. One nice anecdote is that when in England in 1975 it was enacted the law of gender discrimination, Shirley had to hire more men.

Her company grew up rapidly and, in the 1980s, her thousands of programmers, mostly women, wrote software for the best companies in the United Kingdom and developed projects, such as the programming of the flight recorder of the black box of the Concorde plane.

In 1996, the company was listed on the London Stock Exchange and came to be valued at 3 billion dollars. Since Shirley had distributed more than 50% of her shares to her employees, at no cost to them, seventy women became millionaires at that time.

Upon retiring, Stephanie Shirley began to dedicate herself to philanthropy through the Shirley Foundation, which is dedicated to the research and treatment of autistic children. Having had an autistic child herself, she supports the advancement of science about this disorder.

Shirley was part of the founding members of the British Computer Society in 1957. She was appointed Officer of the Excellent Order of the British Empire and promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000. She was also Ambassador of the United Kingdom for Philanthropy and has received other multiple recognitions.

I think we have much to learn from the story of Dame Stephanie Shirley, who was not stopped by the "glass ceiling" or any other of the many difficulties that she had in her life, using all her means to enforce her work and the work of thousands of women who became part of her company.

I propose you that, the next time you face a difficulty in your profession, remember Stephanie "Steve" Shirley!

 

--- Versión en Español

Título: “Mi nombre es Steve”

“El liderazgo tiene rasgos masculinos”

“La tecnología no es para mujeres”

“Los emprendedores son hombres”

 

Las mujeres en la actualidad seguimos viviendo con prejuicios, estereotipos y dificultades en nuestro desarrollo profesional. Lo que se ha denominado metafóricamente como “Techo de Cristal”, “Laberinto de Cristal” o “Piso Pegajoso”, aún sigue vigente en pleno siglo XXI.

Sin embargo, no podríamos quejarnos si lo comparamos con lo que han tenido que luchar las mujeres valientes que nos precedieron, que nos abrieron el camino y lograron grandes avances.

Una de estas mujeres valientes es la talentosa Stephanie Shirley, quién se tuvo que hacer llamar “Steve” para que la recibieran en el mundo de los negocios del Reino Unido de los anos ’60.

Por aquella época, las mujeres no podían conducir un camión, ni siquiera podían abrir una cuenta bancaria sin el permiso de su marido, mucho menos insertarse en el mundo laboral. Aquellas que lo lograban debían convivir con el temor al acoso sexual de forma regular.

Stephanie Shirley, nacida en Alemania, en 1939, a sus 5 años llegó aterrorizada a Inglaterra como refugiada judía, escapando del Holocausto junto a su hermana Renata de 9 años. Habiendo escapado de Alemania a Austria, sus padres subieron a las dos pequeñas hermanas al programa Kindertransport, famoso por haber salvado a un gran número de niños del terrible destino que les esperaría en la Europa de los Nazis. Stephanie y Renata fueron recibidas por un bondadoso matrimonio y residieron en las afueras de Londres.

En su libro “Let it Go”, Shirley cuenta que haber sido refugiada y salvarse del Holocausto marcó su vida de tal forma que decidió que debía asegurarse de que cada día valiera la pena ser vivido. Según sus propias palabras: “Estaba decidida a no permitir que otras personas me definan, a abrirme paso, a construir algo nuevo y no dejarme desanimar por las convenciones del día".

Como le gustaban mucho las matemáticas y en esa época las escuelas para niñas lo más científico que tenían era biología, decidió anotarse en una escuela de varones, lo que no fue para nada fácil para ella que empezó a vestirse lo más masculino que podía para no llamar la atención.

Cuanto terminó su escuela secundaria comenzó a trabajar, a la vez que comenzó sus estudios nocturnos para graduarse con honores en su Licenciatura de Matemáticas, 6 años más tarde.

En 1951, teniendo apenas 18 años empezó a trabajar en la Estación de Investigación de la Oficina de Correos de Dollis Hill, en el noroeste de Londres, donde se habían construido las máquinas de descifrado de la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Trabajó en cables telefónicos transatlánticos y en el desarrollo de las primeras llamadas telefónicas electrónicas, entre otros proyectos.

Si bien le gustaba mucho su trabajo, se frustraba de ver que nunca le llegaba una promoción, al contrario que sus compañeros varones, que con menores méritos y calificaciones obtenían las promociones.

En esos años contrajo matrimonio con Derek, otro empleado de la Oficina de Correos y eso dificultaba aún más las cosas. Uno de los dos debía dejar su trabajo, y, si bien los dos tenían la misma jerarquía, dada la frustración que tenía Stephanie de ver que en ese lugar no podía prosperar, decidió probar algo diferente.

Fue así como en 1962, a los 29 años, fundó su compañía “Freelance Programmers”, con la misión de dar trabajo a mujeres, evitar la misoginia en el lugar de trabajo y brindarles una retribución justa, sin la brecha de salarios por género que en aquel momento era muy superior a la actual.

Desde la mesa de su comedor y con una inversión mínima, Stephanie Shirley se convirtió en una emprendedora pionera del desarrollo de software.

Otro aspecto de avanzada de su emprendimiento era la flexibilidad de horarios y la posibilidad de trabajar desde sus casas que tenían sus programadoras, permitiéndoles balancear el trabajo con su dedicación al hogar y a la familia.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, en los años ’60 implementó el Home Office!

En aquella época, toda la tecnología disponible para el trabajo a distancia era el teléfono de línea, y ese era el único requisito que le pedía a las mujeres en las entrevistas de trabajo.

Es difícil imaginar ahora, en la época de la revolución de las comunicaciones, que aquellas mujeres escribían sus programas con lápiz y papel, los enviaban por correo postal al centro de procesamiento, donde perforaban el código en cintas o tarjetas, para luego poder hacer la primera ejecución y luego la depuración.   

Cuenta Stephanie en su libro “Let it Go”, que cuando nació su hijo, en ocasiones lloraba mientras ella atendía el teléfono y hablaba con clientes. Para que estos no se dieran cuenta que estaba trabajando desde su casa, Shirley ponía de fondo la grabación de una persona tipeando en una máquina de escribir para que el ruido tapara el llanto del bebé.

Obviamente que no fue fácil abrirse camino en un mundo dominado por los hombres. Cuando enviaba cartas de presentación, ofreciendo los servicios de consultoría y programación a los posibles clientes, ni siquiera recibía una respuesta.

Se dio cuenta entonces que usar su propio nombre no le daba credibilidad y por sugerencia de su marido, comenzó a firmar como “Steve”, lo que le dio buen resultado y comenzaron a recibirla a reuniones de negocios, generando gran sorpresa cuando Steve se presentaba como una mujer.

"Freelance Programmers" comenzó a despegar, empleando mayoría de mujeres con sólo tres hombres. Resulta simpático que cuando en Inglaterra se promulgó la ley de discriminación de género, en 1975, Shirley tuvo que salir a contratar más hombres.

Su empresa creció rápidamente y, en la década de los ’80 sus miles de programadores, mayormente mujeres, escribían software para las mejores compañías del Reino Unido y desarrollaban proyectos, tales como el de la programación de la grabadora de vuelo de la caja negra del Concorde.

En 1996, la empresa cotizó en la Bolsa de Londres y llegó a ser valorada en 3 mil millones de dólares.  Dado que Shirley había distribuido más del 50% de sus acciones en sus empleadas, sin ningún costo para ellas, setenta mujeres se hicieron millonarias en ese momento.

Al retirarse, Stephanie Shirley comenzó a dedicarse a la filantropía a través de la Fundación Shirley que se dedica a la investigación y al tratamiento de niños autistas. Habiendo tenido ella misma un hijo autista, brinda apoyo al avance de la ciencia sobre ese trastorno.

Shirley fue parte de los miembros fundadores de la British Computer Society en 1957. Fue nombrada Oficial de la Excellent Order of the British Empire y ascendida a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire en el año 2000. También fue Embajadora del Reino Unido para la Filantropía y ha recibido otros múltiples reconocimientos.

Creo que tenemos mucho que aprender de la historia de Dame Stephanie Shirley, a quien no la detuvo el “techo de cristal” ni ninguna de las dificultades de las muchas que se le presentaron en la vida, usando todos sus medios para hacer valer su trabajo y el trabajo de miles de mujeres que llegaron a formar parte de su empresa.

Te propongo que la próxima vez que te enfrentes a una dificultad en tu profesión, recuerdes a Stephanie “Steve” Shirley.

Posted by Cecilia Boggi on: March 06, 2019 12:26 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Inspiring and thought provoking! Thanks for posting!

And the idea "not to allow other people to define me, to open my way by myself, to build something new and not be discouraged by the conventions of the day" is something that should be embraced by everyone and encouraged by everyone (in everyone else).

Very inspiring and motivating story. This remarkable journey gives lots of thoughts to overcome the challenges of real life.

Thanks you Cecilia !!

Inspiring article and story. Thanks for sharing

No so long ago, really. Thanks for sharing this story.

Motivational post, very inspired, thanks for sharing!

Inspiring story...women making a mark in this world!

Interesting read, you might like this one, its dated - I had written this 12 years back - http://interestreads.blogspot.com/2007/11/role-of-indian-women-in-shaping-indias.html

Thanks Deepa, Suzi, Wade, Rajesh, Alok and Ashleigh!
This lady really inspire me!
Since I read her book I'm always thinking about her life. There tons of other inspiring details in it I couldn't include in my post!
If you want to know something else of her, I recommend you to watch her TEDx talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/dame_stephanie_shirley_why_do_ambitious_women_have_flat_heads
Enjoy!

Thank you Cecilia. Really Inspired.
I'll remember her on my professional hard days.

Thanks María!
Yes, this motivational story is good to re-think our issues from another perspective ;)

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