Published on in Responsible Business

Dame Stephanie Shirley – Companion of Honour, who likes to be referred to as Steve, was just five years old when she first stepped onto English soil, clutching her sister’s hand. The holocaust had taken away nearly everything important in her life, had robbed her of much of her identity, and taught her early-on a harsh lesson in change and resilience.

It was this early moment that has remained the catalyst to her “living a life worth saving”: to not fritter time, and to empower others that have been oppressed or silenced.

As a result, Steve has become one of the pioneering voices in gender equality in the workplace, particularly in the technology space. She has challenged every societal norm to achieve her aspirations, which has seen her create a software business worth £300 billion. Throughout this journey, she has brought many other women along, enabling them to also break through the glass ceiling.

Following this, Steve has continued her pioneering work for those who have experienced inequality. She has set up three charities focusing on supporting autistic education, providing independence to autistic adults, and conducting further research into neurodiversity.

It’s Steve’s continuous challenging of societal norms and inequalities that makes her such a fitting person to learn from as we think about this years’ International Women’s Day theme: #ChooseToChallenge.

Celebrating progression and recognising where needs for improvements

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect and measure just how far equality in the workplace has come. It’s also a time of recognising what steps need to be taken next, because if we don’t continually challenge limitations on women’s role in the workplace, it will never progress.

Steve’s experience as an ambitious 18-year-old beginning her first job as an office clerk is a startling picture of just how recently blatant sexism was readily accepted. Salaries were based on age and gender. There was a male and female pay scale, with the former paid significantly more than the latter.

Steve and her female peers were seen as offering little value in comparison to her male colleagues. Despite this, Steve’s first boss taught her a valuable lesson: how not to manage.

Her boss refused to put her up for a promotion despite her willingness to learn. But Steve didn’t accept this. Her resilience harnessed from the age of five encouraged her to adapt, to find other ways of reaching her goal of a promotion. So she applied for the position as an external candidate – and she got it.

This was just one barrier that Steve had to smash through; there continued to be a succession of challenges all due to society’s normalisation of inequality in the workplace. In response, she began using the name Steve to get her foot in the door.

While the many obstacles Steve struck down for herself and other women is something to be celebrated, there are still uncomfortable parallels between inequality in the workplace now and more than half a century ago. The gender pay gap is still an issue, there is still an uneven ratio of men and women in senior positions and unconscious bias continues to plague recruitment processes. In order to improve the workplace for us and future female generations, together, we must strive to challenge even the most covert inequalities in the workplace.

Reaching goals, and alternative aspirations to money

When Steve decided to set up her own company specialising in selling software, she was laughed at and patronised. She was unable to even open a bank account for her business without her husband’s permission. Being the change she wanted to see in the world, 297 of Steve’s first 300 employees were female. Her business was her own space to curate the change she wanted to see, and that in itself was a business goal, with a social outcome.

Yet the result wasn’t primarily financial. Steve believes that business goals can go far beyond just monetary gains. For her, as well as curating a successful business, it was about creating a culture of female employees who were able to return to work after maternity leave, and have flexible working hours. It was about social ethics.

Of course in the middle of a pandemic working from home now feels completely normal, but at the time, working from a kitchen table or working around child-care wasn’t considered a viable business model. By challenging the conventional model of success, she was able to remove some of the gender role barriers that prevent women from working. And it worked. It was 30 women in Steve’s company, working from their houses that built the Black Box for Concorde.

However, the journey to getting to this success wasn’t overnight; it was a slow burn. As Steve reminded everyone success isn’t easy, instead “Success is at the edge of failure”: Steve had to face countless rejections from training, promotions and opportunities purely based on her gender. She also faced personal difficulties, particularly in supporting her autistic son.

Even after Steve had proved everyone wrong about women in the technology sector, she didn’t stop. She continued to use her knowledge and her strength to bring equality to those in a less influential position than herself.

This sparked a new career in philanthropy, opening three charities all aimed at progressing the equality and opportunity for those with autism. It is her autism research organisation, Autistica, which is Fujitsu’s charity partner today.

It’s easy to look at Steve and feel inspired by her pioneering attitude to the adversities she’s faced. She accomplished many firsts, but a first time doesn’t have to be an only time.

You might not be able to imagine how you can also challenge inequalities in the workplace with the same courage as Steve, however, as she points out, she may have been a pioneer, but she was never alone and was never without fears or worries or imposter syndrome like the rest of us.

“Courage is not a question of feeling fear; it’s about feeling fear and doing it. Groups make it easier. We all gain more than we give when we work together,” she says.

This is precisely why I think International Women’s Day is important. It’s an opportunity for us to regroup, to celebrate what has moved on and to champion us all to challenge things that need to change.

Steve shows us, together we can make change happen.

If you’d like to hear more from Steve and her work you can access her International Women’s Day webinar here. She has also released two books with all proceeds going to Autistica. To get your copy of Let It Go or So To Speak here. To find out more information on how Autistica have been working with Fujitsu to make the workplace more neuro diverse.

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