Faces of HPC: Dame Stephanie Shirley
Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley is an information technology pioneer and philanthropist. Shirley was born in Dortmund, Germany and was placed in foster care during the Second World War after arriving at a refugee camp unaccompanied by her parents. In 1962 Shirely founded Freelance Programmers, with the goal of creating job opportunities for women with dependents.
Dame Shirley was brought up by foster parents in Sutton Coldfield, UK, after arriving at a Second World War refugee camp, along with her sister, but without her parents. She started working in the mathematical and technical industries and decided to set up her own software company, Freelance Programmers. She became a billionaire and donated most of her income to charitable causes, especially to fund autism research which affected her son.
Stephanie Shirley was born in 1933 as Vera Buchthal, in Dortmund, Germany. Her father was Jewish, working as a judge in Dortmund and her mother was non-Jewish Viennese. At the age of 5, just before the start of the Second World War, Shirley’s parents put her and her sister to a Kindertransport train that was taking children refugees to London. The sisters found a foster family in London and moved to the Midlands town of Sutton Coldfield. At the age of 18 Shirley became a British citizen and changed her name to Stephanie Brook. She reunited with her parents later on, but never bonded with them.
When Shirley finished school, she didn't want to go to university, as botany was the only science available for women at that time. She found a job at the Post Office Research station, where she was building computers from scratch and programming. She met her future husband there, physicist Derek Shirley. After their marriage in 1962, she quit from her job as women were not allowed to work at the same organisation as their husbands. During this time Shirley had been taking six years of evening courses and obtained a mathematics degree in 1959.
Dame Shirley founded Freelance Programmers, her own company to develop and sell software. She started working at her house, using a male nickname, Steve, to be able to sign contracts in a time when women faced a lot of sexism in the workplace. She focused on employing women that were not able to find another job and, for the first time, they were working part-time from home in order to take care of their children too.
In 1968 she gave birth to her son Giles, who was autistic and died in his sleep at the age of 35. Shirley spent a lot of her later life as an active philanthropist donating most of her wealth to charitable causes, many of which were related to research into autism spectrum disorders. She established the Shirley Foundation, a charitable trust with main research areas autism and IT. She has released her autobiography titled 'Let it go'. She now lives in London with her husband.
During her life Shirley received a variety of honours including the Officer of the Order of the Brisith Empire (OBE) in 1980 and has previously been President of the British Computer Society from 1989 to 1990.