Dame Stephanie Shirley’s list of accomplishments is long, from fleeing from Germany in World War II, paving the way for women in the feminist movement, developing a software company from 6 pounds with an all-female staff and more, but her proudest achievement is keeping her family together when her only son was diagnosed with chronic autism.
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She accredits her success to her “lucky” childhood. Taking one of the last trains out of Germany to England, Shirley was lucky to fall into the loving hands of an Anglican couple who urged her to follow her love of mathematics. She was moved from convent to grammar school after showing promise in her studies and even forced her way into a boy’s school to further her learning of mathematics.
Numerous setbacks in her career could all be boiled down to her gender. When working on the trans-Atlantic telephone cables she was not allowed on the cable ship as there were no female toilets, and when her business was not being ignored, she changed her name from Stephanie to “Steve” in her letters, the change in recognition for her and her company was shocking.
So she embarked on a crusade for women, by establishing a software company run entirely by women Stephanie Shirley wanted “a company of women for women.” Of course, she was met with strong opposition and mockery from the men in her field.
Despite her role as CEO, Stephanie has another role as wife and mother. Her husband, Derek complemented her in his work ethic, demeanour and personality, “I guess we kept each other interested” Stephanie joked. However, when their son Giles was diagnosed with autism and placed in an asylum for eleven years, Stephanie tuned her attention to helping him and other families like her own.
She established a school that helps autistic people learn basic life skills like cooking or catching a bus whilst searching for specific jobs so that they can support themselves. She also partnered with the University of Edinburgh to investigate the causes of autism on a biological and neurological level.
Despite all she’s achieved, when asked what brings her joy she claimed, “having kept my family together even though we’ve been through some very, very rough times.”