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An inspirational woman ahead of her time

08 March 2018

On International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to reflect on an extraordinary woman who has led an extraordinary life - Dame Stephanie Shirley.

I urge you to read Dame Stephanie’s memoir, Let IT Go if you haven’t done so already. She came to England in 1939 as a five-year-old refugee on the Kindertransport and was adopted by an English couple. Describing that period as her “re-birth”, she says the experience gave her the drive to prove that her life had been worth saving.

In her early twenties, Dame Stephanie worked as a computer programmer and her career quickly progressed. She soon became frustrated with the glass ceiling, however, so took the brave step of setting up her own IT business from her home. She hired talented female programmers who had been forced out of their jobs because they had got married or had children, or were fed up with traditional male-dominated workplaces. 

All the women worked part time from home and Dame Stephanie developed innovative practices to manage the business - originally named Freelance Programmers - on that basis. This was in the early 1960s, so she was well ahead of the curve – the set-up would be considered innovative even by today’s standards. The business was a huge success and Dame Stephanie has devoted her retirement to philanthropy, focusing primarily on autism (her son Giles was autistic and died at the age of 35).       

Drawing a contemporary parallel

Reading about Freelance Programmers struck a chord with me, on account of its similarities with the business I run at Lewis Silkin, called rockhopper. It also made me reflect on how things have changed for women during Dame Stephanie’s lifetime.

rockhopper is a fixed fee HR/employment law support service, providing an advice line and fixed-fee defence of Employment Tribunal claims. We launched the business in 2014 in response to pressure from clients to provide low-cost support on “day-to-day” or routine matters. While most firms providing this sort of service do so using a team of paralegals or very junior lawyers, as that’s usually most cost effective, our priority was to provide a high-quality service that clients associated with Lewis Silkin.

So we needed to find another way. Around the same time, we realised we were at risk of losing some of our senior, talented lawyers because they wanted to work in a different way. Either they wanted to live in a location not commutable to any of our offices, or they wanted to find a better balance between work and family life. We quickly concluded that this provided the solution for rockhopper.

We now have 13 lawyers in the rockhopper team, working exclusively from home on different terms to the lawyers in our core team and on part-time hours they choose for themselves. They are all senior, experienced employment lawyers and clients regularly tell us how much they appreciate the team’s commercial and strategic approach to HR/employment queries. We pass on savings from the reduced overheads to our clients, making the service exceptional value.

Naturally it is open to both men and women to apply to work in the rockhopper team, but currently all the lawyers are women. Most, but not all, have children. The legal sector is not known for having particularly family-friendly workplaces, but Lewis Silkin is different from other law firms in being forward-thinking and flexible.

Shifting the ‘primary carer’ mindset

Nonetheless, we can’t deny that it remains difficult to reconcile the traditional legal career with other demands, such as a young family or elderly relatives (or both!). While the lawyers in the rockhopper team, unlike the programmers engaged by Dame Stephanie, didn’t choose to join rockhopper because they were fed up with a male-dominated workplace or were forced out of their jobs, it does say something that almost half a century later women are still far more likely than men to choose to work in this way. The reasons vary, but perhaps it is mainly because women are still likely to be paid less than their husband or partner and are more likely to be the “primary carer” of their children.   

As a parent myself, I find it frustrating that the concept of the primary carer tends to be pushed on to women. Some nurseries, schools and clubs have a policy of sending email communications to one parent, which often ends up being the mum. Why shouldn’t it be both parents? Can’t parents share the care of their children equally? Shared parental leave (“SPL”) was brought in to encourage this, but the take-up is extremely low – less than 2% of those eligible.

Again, the reasons for this are likely to be complex, but surely a significant factor is that government guidance states that employers are under no legal obligation to match enhanced maternity pay for parents taking SPL (although an Employment Tribunal recently decided this was discriminatory). If fathers/partners do not take time off to care for their baby in the early stages of parenthood - at the time when routines are established and new household chores are being managed - the mother will tend to assume control and this is likely to continue after she has returned to work. This double-burden on mothers (also referred to as the “mental load”) can be exhausting, stressful and sometimes overwhelming.

Of course these are generalisations. There are many great examples of companies providing generous SPL pay, encouraging fathers to take leave or work part time in order to be more involved in their children’s lives and home management. Not to mention schools sending email communications to both parents (progress!).

How much better is it for women now?

We have certainly come a long way since Dame Stephanie experimented with signing her letters to prospective clients as “Steve Shirley”, to see if they were more likely to agree to meet a man than a woman. (This actually worked and she continued to call herself Steve for much of her career!) Indeed, Dame Stephanie has been quoted as saying that working women “have it dead easy” nowadays.

I was interested to know exactly what she meant by this, and was fortunate to be able to ask her personally. Dame Stephanie said that women have a relatively easy experience in the workplace because much of the sexism she experienced is now unlawful. For example, when she started her career it was lawful – and commonplace - for employers to dismiss women when they got married or became pregnant, and to pay them significantly less than men doing the same job.

Yet although it has been nearly fifty years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced and over forty years since the Sex Discrimination Act came into force, we still have a national gender pay gap of over 9%. Moreover, campaigns such as #everydaysexism, #metoo and #pregnantthenscrewed highlight how women in all sectors experience sex discrimination at work, as does recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It seems the law has only taken us so far and we need a cultural, political and legal shift to get us further.

Dame Stephanie agrees. “The cultural challenges today’s women are tackling are actually more difficult to address than the legal ones my generation battled”, she says. “Certainly, I genuinely believed that ‘all’ we needed to do was get the legal things right.” 

It is necessary to consider the issues in a holistic way. With larger companies being required to publish their gender pay gap figures for the first time this year, it can be easy to “explain” gaps by referring to the number of women in their organisations who have taken maternity leave or work part time. But that is too simplistic. Organisations genuinely committed to a diverse and inclusive workforce will recognise the importance of, for example, encouraging men to take SPL by matching pay to enhanced maternity pay, creating an environment in which women can progress to more senior roles by allowing more flexible working arrangements, and providing coaching and/or mentoring to help women succeed in what still tend to be male-dominated boardrooms. 

I had read that Dame Stephanie did not agree with quotas for women on boards, because she would want to feel she was appointed on merit and not because the company was obliged to fill a quota. I would like to think there are enough talented women in the UK to fill those positions on merit. Having a more diverse board could then accelerate change across the organisation, by having female role models and a better understanding of the challenges that need to be addressed. Dame Stephanie agrees and admits: “We have moved so little in the last fifty years that I think quotas may have become necessary”.  Many organisations are now setting targets, as opposed to quotas, and the campaign run by the 30% Club has made great strides since it launched in 2010.

Playing our part

I asked Dame Stephanie why she thinks it is taking so long to shift attitudes towards women. Her answer: “I’m not a psychologist, but to me it’s obvious that people in power seek to retain it…”

It feels as if we’re on the cusp of a cultural shift, but it’s down to all of us to make sure the opportunity for enduring societal reform is not lost. At Lewis Silkin, through our #aLastingChange initiative, we are committed to working with employers, industry bodies and anybody else who wants to join us. Following in Dame Stephanie’s inspirational footsteps, we’re determined to play our part in ensuring that 2018 marks a definitive step forward in improving women’s experience in the workplace.

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