I had the pleasure of working with the author for eight years starting in the 1960s when we both had young children. Ann was my company’s Technical Director and I was – in theory at least– her boss. That was in an age when women were viewed as second class citizens requiring male authorisation for financial transactions and debarred from some professional activities. There were few part-time jobs with any intellectual challenge so it was usual for women to leave work on marriage or when their first child was expected. What a waste of skilled resources!
I founded Freelance Programmers (one of the UK’s first high-tech startups) as a crusade for women returners rather than to make my fortune. Study after study has shown that women’s two priorities in the workplace are flexibility and work/life balance. We provided these in the extreme.
Ann was dubbed the ‘IT Girl’, meaning both Information Technology and (the original meaning) attractive young woman with ‘it’ – sex appeal and an engaging personality. I often used my nickname Steve to get through the door before anyone realised that ‘he’ was a ‘she’. I got teased with headlines about ‘Steve and her birds’ (bird also being Pom slang for a sexually attractive or promiscuous young woman).
Things have moved on since we both worked in that pioneering social enterprise. But today there is still an acute waste of female talent in an industry that is desperate to recruit and retain skilled staff. Freelance Programmers – and that is exactly what the company was in its early years – helped me, helped Ann, and helped hundreds of women to contribute to the IT industry.
The percentage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has been depressingly low in most countries, and sunny Australia is no exception. The pace of change towards a fairer and more diverse labour force remains slow. Massive changes in the workplace are needed if we are to move to gender equality.
Dame Stephanie Shirley CH DBE FREng FBCS
Henley-on-Thames, England August 2020
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