From education to employment

More women in engineering will boost businesses

Software engineering pioneer Dame Stephanie Shirley CH DBE FREng, dispelled what she termed the ‘gender myth’ of engineering at the Royal Academy of Engineering on Monday 5 November, when she became the first woman to give the Academy’s annual Hinton Lecture.

Reflecting on her own career, from mathematical clerk at the Post Office to CEO of a successful software house, she described engineering as a profession at the heart of society and how it had opened the door to so many opportunities for her.

Her pioneering and profitable IT business, later known as Xansa and now part of the Sopra Steria Group, initially employed only women working part-time when she established it in 1959.

Dame Stephanie described some of the challenges she faced as a woman when she started her business. For example, she needed her husband’s permission to open the company’s bank account, and she found that she was not taken seriously at first in securing work for her company, until she started signing her letters ‘Steve’ instead of ‘Stephanie’.

Speaking about her experiences of working with women in engineering, Dame Stephanie said:

“There is nothing, but nothing, gender-related about modern engineering. Engineering’s image may be masculine. But I refuse to accept that some disciplines are less or more feminine than others. Dispelling that myth is absolutely critical.

“Tackling gender diversity is the easiest way to improve an organisation’s economic and cultural wellbeing. But it’s multi-faceted. All women also have an ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, ability or disability, and may be younger or older. We shouldn’t be treated as an amorphous mass.”

Thirty years ago, Dame Stephanie helped establish Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) to find out what motivates female engineers to enter and persist in the profession.

This has led the industry, with the support of the Academy, to develop and widely adopt the Ten Steps framework to help improve the recruitment, retention and progression of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To date, more than 50 companies have signed up.

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH DBE FREng. In 1939, Dame Stephanie Shirley came to England as an unaccompanied child refugee on the Kindertransport.

In 1959 she founded an early software company with just £6. It went on to employ 8,500 staff and her female-friendly company broke new ground in its flexibility, its holistic approach to human resources and in its co-ownership, which peaked at 62% staff control.

After she retired, Dame Stephanie served on the boards of Tandem Computers in the USA, the Atomic Energy Authority (later AEA Technology plc) and was the first ever non-executive director of the John Lewis Partnership.

After her company was acquired by a French group, it was valued at $3 billion and had made 70 of her staff into millionaires. Dame Stephanie is also an ardent philanthropist.

To date she has made gifts of £68 million as social investments in IT, her professional discipline, and autism (her late son was autistic). She is a past master of the IT livery company, was the first woman President of the British Computer Society, and was appointed a Companion of Honour in 2017 – one of only 65 worldwide – for “nationally important service”.

The Hinton Lecture is the flagship annual lecture of the Royal Academy of Engineering. It is named after the late Lord Hinton of Bankside OM KBE FREng FRS, the first President of the Academy.

Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering and technology, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers from academia and business – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We harness their experience and expertise to provide independent advice to government, to deliver programmes that help exceptional engineering researchers and innovators realise their potential, to engage the public with engineering and to provide leadership for the profession.

We have three strategic priorities:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses
  • Address the engineering skills and diversity challenge
  • Position engineering at the heart of society

We bring together engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics, educators and the public in pursuit of these goals.

Engineering is a global profession, so we work with partners across the world to advance engineering’s contribution to society on an international, as well as a national scale.

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