A Woman’s Place
Gender equality is still a major issue in the technology industry, but 50 years ago one British company was blazing trails.
There wasn’t much structure to Lynda’s working day — but then again, it had to be that way.
A project manager by trade, Lynda had cut her teeth at the Bank of England’s Data Processing department. After marrying and having a child, however, things were different. Holding down a full-time job while looking after her infant son had proven impossible, so she turned to freelancing: that way most of her work could be done in the early mornings and late evenings when little Colin was asleep.
Working this way wasn't without risks, however. Sometimes the mechanical chimes of her Amstrad 1512’s modem woke Colin, whose bedroom was adjacent to her home office.
The year was 1986, and Lynda had just joined a small cadre of female engineers working for FI, a groundbreaking IT firm that laid the foundations for outsourced development and women’s rights in the workplace.
The company, originally called Freelance Programmers, was founded in the early 1960s by Stephanie Shirley, a German who had been evacuated to Britain — along with many fellow Jewish children — as part of the kindertransport shortly before the Second World War.
Shirley had become a programmer in the early days of computing. Code was handwritten on paper coding sheets, in languages such as COBOL and Fortran, and handed off to all-female pools of workers who transcribed the code onto punch cards. Once the “punchgirls” were done, programs were fed into giant mainframe computers housed in clean rooms. The output would appear hours later, once the instructions had been run.
The number-crunching power on offer seems rudimentary by today’s standards — programs were measured in bytes, and a mainframe with a partition of a megabyte was seen as wildly exotic.
But even back in the 1960s, the technology world moved fast. Having taken time off while pregnant with her son, Shirley found it almost impossible to return to work. She was an accomplished programmer, but the most visible women in her office were the punchgirls. Data Processing, like any other industry at the time, was dominated by men.
Sexism and the gap in her career owing to time taken off to give birth to her son meant that her job applications were simply ignored.
Frustrated, she began to sign her cover letters “Steve” instead of “Stephanie.” The replies started to trickle in.
Although she now had a way back into work, Shirley found that the programming jobs on offer lacked the flexibility necessary to take care of her newborn son, who was severely autistic and required round-the-clock attention. So she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Realising that the development phase of any build — the actual coding of the software — needn’t be completed on-site, she came up with a leaner business model that was, uncoincidentally, built around the needs of women and mothers.
Shirley’s model accepted that most new mothers would not be able to work regular hours, so it operated a skeleton full-time staff, and relied on freelancers and part-timers to make up the bulk of the workforce. Programmers — once they’d proven themselves, at least — were put on “the list”: the company’s roster of active workers. When a development contract arrived, it was handed to a project manager like Lynda who was responsible for staffing up and delivering.
With a bare-bones business structure, Shirley avoided expenses such as office space and insurance. In fact, one of the company’s main expenses was postage: each programmer would write their code on carbon paper (backup copies were needed in case the original was lost or damaged) and send it through the mail to their client’s punchgirls. The code would be transcribed, the program run and any errors would get posted back to the programmer for correction.
The model was a success. As the company began to grow Shirley rebranded the business in 1974: it became F International, or FI.
In the chauvinistic business environment of the 1970s, FI’s survival hinged on its ability to hide the man (or in this case, the women and children) behind the curtain.
All clients saw was a small number of crisply turned-out staff — coordinators and project managers — but behind them, the company hid a disordered mass of programmers working irregular hours from home offices and kitchen tables, many nursing young children.
When face-to-face meetings were required between FI staff, they would usually take place in a cafe or restaurant. Often having never met before, FI lapel pins were worn to help staff spot each other in public. After being briefed at these meetings, project managers would present to clients as if they had been preparing for weeks, when in fact they had only been introduced to the proposed job hours beforehand.
FI’s ‘mother and baby’ logo
The subterfuge stretched further, too. Business cards sported the address and phone number of one of the firm’s few regional offices: clients who called would be told the project manager in question was unavailable, but would return their call later that day.
Lynda scheduled her client callbacks to coincide with Sesame Street so that Colin was less likely to disturb her. Inevitably, though, he sometimes became restless and ambled upstairs in search of her. On the rare occasion that he would barge into the room mid-call she would pretend the phone line had gone bad and hurriedly hang up.
Away from the eyes of their clients, every aspect of the company’s operation was set up to cater for the needs of working mothers. Although much of the work was done in the evening, house rules dictated that phone calls were banned after 9pm or around mealtimes, for example.
Once they were on “the list” FI’s freelancers could pick and choose their workload. If they performed well or impressed a particular project manager, they could expect to be asked to work more often; although refusing a project in no way hurt their chances of future work. This flexibility enabled new and expectant mothers to keep their programming skills sharp and avoid the career gap that be could be the kiss of death for many coders.
Shirley’s caring influence spread to perks as well: lavish gifts were distributed every Christmas, including silk scarves, crystal paperweights and bone china mugs. Long-serving staff were given gold plated bracelets.
By the time FI had become a noticeable force on the IT landscape, the two problems that had prevented Shirley from pursuing her data processing career had been solved. Gender and parenthood were no longer an issue as they had become invisible to FI’s clientele, and flexible working meant women no longer had to put their career on hold for years at a time.
Stephanie Shirley adopted the moniker Steve almost full-time, while her company ran rings around the male hegemony. By this point FI counted many FTSE 100 companies as clients, was responsible for much of the financial infrastructure powering the City of London, and was winning as many as two out of every three contracts it tendered for.
Like all technology companies, however, FI had to move with the times, and began the transition from punchcards to terminals and command line programming in the 1970s and 80s. These changes meant that homeworking and correspondence by post slowly became more difficult, and FI’s freelancers had to adapt to increasing amounts of on-site work.
The company began to establish larger regional offices, which meant yet more full-time staff and less remote working. New tax laws chipped away at freelancers’ rights, forcing sales staff, human resources and project managers to go permanent.
Shirley, realising that her creation was growing faster than she had expected, handed the reigns to Hilary Cropper in 1987, who had been poached from computer firm ICL to take over as CEO. This allowed Shirley to care for her son in the final years of his life (he died in 1998).
Although also a champion of women in the workplace, Cropper was more concerned with equality between the sexes than catering specifically for women. The mother and baby logo was retired, and the company embarked on an ambitious growth strategy.
Anti-discrimination laws meant that the business could no longer hire only women without breaking the law, but the feminist culture Shirley had implanted continued, and FI’s female workers continued to make up well over 90% of its workforce.
Now seen as “that company full of women” by the male-dominated IT sector, the pressure to succeed was high. One heavily pregnant technician was at a client’s site until 9pm completing a build. She finished the job, returned home, and gave birth to twins on her bathroom floor.
One of the few male workers who found their way onto FI’s roster, meanwhile, assumed he was in for an easy ride. But after a project ran late, he returned home to find a senior manager on a chair on his front lawn sipping coffee. After she put him firmly in his place, the work was completed overnight and delivered the next day.
But as Cropper’s growth plan slowly took hold, FI’s unique culture began to erode. Shirley’s earliest customers were jettisoned in favour of lucrative development and support contracts with national banks, insurers and retailers. Several acquisitions ended in awkward culture clashes, and little by little, FI began to take on the bloat of its competitors.
Still, as the company grew, so did its profits. As FI prepared to go public in the early 90s, Shirley used what influence she had left to engineer an employee buyout and gift her shares to early staff, complicating the IPO with the addition of several hundred new private shareholders and causing a furore at board level. Just a few years later, with the stock market on their side, many of those employees found themselves millionaires.
The changing culture meant Lynda had gone from on-site work two mornings per week to almost full-time office hours, often involving a torturous morning commute. Now a public company, focus was shifted to maintaining quarterly results rather than long-term planning, and the raw coding so enjoyed by early employees was replaced by money-spinning support and maintenance contracts.
In 2001, FI rebranded again, this time calling itself Xansa. To further cut costs, a great deal of its work was moved to India: the outsourcers had been outsourced. What little of the female-first culture that was Freelance Programmers’ raison d’être was finally destroyed. In 2007 the firm, now with a turnover nearing £400m, was bought out by technology services behemoth Steria.
Lynda took early retirement in 2002 and now lives with her husband in a leafy cul-de-sac in southern England. She is still friends with many of the women she worked with in FI’s golden years, and looks back on the time fondly.
Dame Steve Shirley, now approaching 80 years old, has become a noted philanthropist since leaving FI and can still be found championing women’s rights in television and radio appearances. The firm’s technical legacy, meanwhile, is hard to ignore — much of the financial infrastructure it built is still in place today.
FI’s legacy for women in technology, though? That is more difficult to quantify.
Ironically, equality legislation enacted to ensure women’s fair treatment effectively made it impossible for FI’s unique culture to continue. Also ironic is that the firm’s fierce protection of its army of female programmers means that few people know of their pioneering work.
There is no doubt that Steve Shirley and FI broke new ground. Now, almost 50 years after the birth of an all-female technology company with radically modern working practices, it seems remarkable that the same industry is still fumbling with the issue of gender equality.