IT legend Dame Stephanie Shirley has said tech is crying out for more female role models as the sector is “100 per cent” suited to women.
Dame Shirley is a businesswoman, philanthropist and technology pioneer. Her early experiences of the ‘glass ceiling’ at work convinced her to set up her own business.
The business, later known as Xansa and now part of the Sopra Steria Group, prospered and Dame Shirley – whose nickname of ‘Steve’ helped her win several early contracts in a male-dominated world – has used her considerable wealth to give something back to society during her retirement.
Dame Shirley is 83 but maintains a busy schedule of speaking engagements alongside other interests.
Never one to sit on the fence, she told BusinessCloud: “Women certainly perceive barriers in tech but they have it so easy today compared to how it was 50 years ago.
“Back then there were certain things women were literally not allowed to do as they manoeuvred their way through life, such as work on the stock exchange or drive a bus – there were all sorts of legal issues.
“The issues today are covert and therefore much more complex to confront than when I was battling against legislation: if a man and a woman went out on a sales call together, the assumption might be that the man was senior and the woman the subservient staff member.
“However, there is nothing in the IT industry that is not 100 per cent suitable for women.
“Whenever you survey women of any age, in any country, the two things that come out as very important to them are flexible working and work/life balance. IT allows that.
“The leadership model – leaders determining what the next leaders will be expected to be – is crucial. The model at the moment is male.
“Men lead in a different way: their body language is quite different, they are assertive, they will claim knowledge of something even when it’s quite superficial; whereas women will say ‘yes, I know a little bit about that’, or ‘I can find out’, and we’ve quite different body language.
“It’s a definition of leadership. If you’re the conductor of an orchestra, for example, a man and a woman may get equally good results but they do work in a different way, which is why for many years we didn’t have any female conductors in music.”
Dame Shirley came to the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee and said life skills were vital.
“I was at a meeting recently with a charity that I’m involved with and the women just didn’t circulate in the event at all,” she said.
“They were talking amongst themselves instead of meeting customers. There are certain techniques that women need to apply, whether they find them natural or not.
“People evaluate exam results differently if the exam was sat by a male or a female. It’s endemic.
“It’s only recently that people’s names have been removed from examinations – they just have a number now. If there was an innovative solution with a male name, it was more likely to be marked up than with a female name.
“It’s incredible, but those are the facts.
“I think the start-up sectors are more welcoming to women because they are not so structured, but there are not enough role models. Role models are more important than people give credit for.”
BusinessCloud’s #100techwomen feature last week was seen by more than a million people on Twitter as it went viral.