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The Sunday Conversation
Breaking Into The Business World With 'Woman-Friendly' Model
Originally published on Tue June 25, 2013 1:16 pm
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley started a software company in 1962. FI Group, now known as Xansa, was "a company of women, a company for women," Shirley says. She wanted to create a new business model, encouraging women to work in the tech industry — with flexible schedules.
She ran into a number of issues as she hit the glass ceiling. Among them, her letters to prospective business partners went unanswered — until she started going by a family nickname, "Steve." Shirley discusses her personal struggles balancing family and work and the role society has in mitigating those challenges.
"People were always astonished that I could drive and manage in a situation where I had two things — business and family — that most people would consider all-consuming as one," she tells Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday.
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DAME STEPHANIE SHIRLEY: If I went to conference the chairman - it always was a chair man - would always start off, good morning, gentleman, Mrs. Shirley, as I was then, because I was the only one. And I was really breaking new ground. And, of course, it does have advantages. At least people remembered me.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is Stephanie Shirley - Dame Stephanie Shirley, actually. She started a computer software company called FI back in 1962 with around ten dollars in her pocket. Over the years, she turned it into a multimillion-dollar company, something quite extraordinary for a woman in business at the time. Now, at age 79, she has stepped away from the business world to focus on philanthropy. She's donated around $100 million to various causes. That distance has given her perspective on her remarkable journey, how she struggled to balance work and family before the very notion even existed. Dame Stephanie Shirley is our Sunday Conversation.
SHIRLEY: It was a company of women, company for women and structured in a totally new way with women working from their own homes with the only technology in those days really was the telephone. And our application form was actually so I said do you have access to a telephone? Those were different days. And at the time, software was given away free with the hardware, so people laughed at me and they laughed because you can't sell software. It's given away, was part of the deal with the computer; that you can't be serious about being in business because women at that time were really focused on home and domestic responsibilities.
MARTIN: So, you took it upon yourself, you said I want to create a different kind of business model. What were you seeing around you in British society at that time that made you think that this was necessary?
SHIRLEY: Well, a lot of women were joining the embryonic computer industry because we needed mathematics to work in the industry in those days, and women were coming out of the universities with decent math degrees. And they were then, as was the culture, leaving professional activities on marriage, or occasionally they went on working on that after marriage until their first child was expected. And this was a tremendous waste for the industry but also impoverished women's lives because there's something very positive about pursuing an active business career. And software was just wonderful for us.
MARTIN: Am I right in reading that you actually ended up having to change your name in order to be taken a little more legitimately?
SHIRLEY: Well, you asked about the sort of problems that one had, and one that I never measured in scientific terms was that people were not replying to my letters. And eventually my dear husband of now over 50 years suggested that it was because I was writing under this sort of double-feminine Stephanie Shirley - Shirley being my marital name - and suggested that I abbreviate it to the family nickname of Steve, Steve Shirley. And it's still alliterative. And it seemed to me that we were beginning to get some responses. And although there was (unintelligible) as I walked through the door, I did have a good story to tell. And, you know, business started to take off. So, I've been Steve ever since and I'm very happy if you call me Steve.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. I shall. Was there anything that happened along the way that made you second guess your choices to try to go off and break new ground for women in this particular industry? Did someone ever mistreat you or put your business back a few steps as a result of your gender, or was it all just kind of at the surface, just there's a woman - what's this lady doing here?
SHIRLEY: I'm not really sure, Rachel. Obviously, I did hit the glass ceiling. I decided to, as many women have done, to build an organization that was appropriate for our gender, that gave flexibility of working, didn't have this macho command and control style of management but was much more concerned with team working and we can do a project. You can help me this morning; I'll help you this afternoon. Really, a very different style of organization.
MARTIN: Do you think those policies that you pushed, those family-friendly work schedules and culture, did that have an impact on other businesses, did that change the way other employers thought about women in the business world?
SHIRLEY: I've always been very disappointed there were so few companies actually emulated my own, which was totally home-based, totally female-friendly.
MARTIN: You were a mother yourself. Your son, Giles, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. And for any working parent, balancing family and a job is a struggle regardless, but that must have been incredibly difficult.
SHIRLEY: I found that the only time I forgot work was when I was with my Gilesy. And the only time I forgot Giles was when I was at work. So, many, many years it balanced fairly reasonably. But there is a high cost of, I think, a vigorous professional career. And child bearing and child rearing is really part of that culture. And eventually, I burnt out and I broke down. And there are costs to pay, which some people are not prepared to make those sacrifices. I look back and say it wouldn't have had it any different. I should have - I'm much more sensitive to other people's stress levels, having broken down myself. And I did eventually come back at full strength.
MARTIN: What was happening? When you say you had a breakdown, what was the tipping point?
SHIRLEY: My son was getting more and more difficult. And he was coming up for 13, and puberty hits most of us with difficulty, if you think back at how it was. Giles couldn't cope with it at all. And after several relatively calm years, he really became very distraught, very disturbed, violent at times, and it all got too much, too much for me and I ceased to function at all.
MARTIN: Did you walk away from your business at that time? Did you just say I need to stop?
SHIRLEY: Yes. I'd organized a sabbatical of three months because I knew I was overwrought. And what happened was that they managed very well without me, which might have upset me. So, that is when you build an organization, it has to be more than just me. And so as I was developing management, I think of myself, Rachel, as a sort of gardener. I grow organizations, I grow people, I've grown not only my company but four independent charities, which are now totally freestanding. They don't depend on me for management or for financing. And that's what I do. And it is this business of doing new things, making new things happen and learning myself.
MARTIN: There has been a lot of talk here in the United States about the idea of family-work balance. An article came out in a magazine, The Atlantic magazine, a few months ago called "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." And in it, the author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, talked about how even though she had reached the top of her field in the upper echelons of the U.S. government, she couldn't make it work as a mother of two teenage boys. And I wonder is this just the way things are, that a woman is going to have to make a decision about how much of her energy she's going to put into work and how much energy she's going to put into raising a family. Or does society have some responsibility to baring, creating structures, creating systems, like you did in your business, to make those choices less difficult?
SHIRLEY: Well, certainly in Europe work has become much more flexible. We talk about flex in work, we talk about telly work, work at a distance. Many, many corporate people work one day a week at home. Well, that's 20 percent, isn't it? So, that things have changed and the idea that I can say, look, I don't want a meeting on Wednesday after because it's school sports day is now acceptable, where is at one time, women would not even say that they were married yet alone have children in case it was considered they were not 100 percent behind their professional career.
MARTIN: Dame Stephanie Shirley. She joined us from the BBC in London. Her book "Let It Go" is available now on Kindle. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
SHIRLEY: Thank you very much.
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MARTIN: Do you think women inevitably have to sacrifice professional success to have a family? That is this week's Sunday Conversation question. We want to know what you think. Tell us on our Facebook page, NPR's Weekend Edition, or on Twitter. I am @RachelNPR.
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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.