First seeds of a fairer future

November 16, 2001

Stephanie became Steve to save her firm. Her gift to Balliol means women can thrive as themselves, Dorothy Zinberg says

Oxford's Balliol College has excitedly plunged into a new venture - the establishment of the Oxford Institute for the Internet and Society. Each aspect of its creation illuminates what can happen when a number of propitious circumstances - and people - collide. While describing the venture, the college's acting master, Andrew Graham, in a decidedly not-understated British fashion, cheerfully reported: "We're claiming that this is the first world-class, multidisciplinary academic institute set up for this purpose, which will carry out research and make policy recommendations about the internet's effects on society."

At last, I thought, a university where so many of the questions about gender, identity, family, work, politics and policy can combine with research on the law, technology and engineering. From the envious sighs of colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom, the institute is what many universities long for.

Dr Graham enumerated the many reasons why Oxford is the ideal home for an interdisciplinary institute. "Oxford (is a) good brand name. It is international. So is the net. And the centre would be neutral."

But getting there necessitated that Balliol should be ready to leap when the first seeds were planted. Two Balliol alumni who saw the need for an internet institute and, more importantly, knew the person who could make it happen, introduced the master to Dame Stephanie Shirley. A feisty entrepreneur and pioneer in software development, Dame Stephanie in recent years has turned her formidable energies to philanthropy. Her goals of what she could accomplish with her financial contribution meshed with the aspirations of the alumni and Balliol, and the grand design was launched.

Obviously this will take enormous sums of money, and here is where Dame Stephanie comes in. The Shirley Foundation has donated £10 million, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England has contributed £5 million of taxpayers' money. Dame Stephanie will contribute an additional £5 million for targeted projects and has embarked on a fundraising drive to bring the total to £100 million. This diversity of funding sources, Dame Stephanie assured me when we met in London, will provide the "neutrality" that Balliol seeks by avoiding the kind of corporate control that threatens the autonomy of so many academic programmes and, in the long term, the independence of universities.

Until I read of the foundation's gift, I had never heard Dame Stephanie's name. However, her rise through the ranks of business was well documented in 1989 by Harvard Business School, and more recently as news of her gift has gained prominence, her name has become known to many.

But the story-within-the story - how Dame Stephanie has amassed the kind of wealth that makes her largesse possible - fits perfectly with the institute's social research and policy goals, which will include understanding the impact of information technology on gender and identity, along with entrepreneurship.

In 1939 she, then named Vera Buchtal, and her sister were put on a Quaker-sponsored children's train in Vienna and brought to London. "We came out with luggage labels and a number tied around our necks." The trauma, she believed, helped her to cope with change and to persevere, qualities that were badly needed in her struggle to study maths as a young girl in London, and later as someone who had to cope with illness (a severely autistic child), and a financial crisis that brought her to the brink of bankruptcy.

At the end of the second world war, 18-year-old Vera Buchtal changed her name to Stephanie Brook in honour of Rupert Brooke (without the "e" because "it seemed a bit pretentious"). By 26, she had married and became Stephanie Shirley, taking another identity and a job at a subsidiary of ICL, the largest computer company in England at the time.

A short time later she left and started a business, Freelance Programmers Ltd. Employing women who were at home with young children (as she was), she began to build a software-design business in her dining room. However, there were few responses to letters from "Stephanie" Shirley. Once more she changed her identity - this time to Steve. The orders to this now seemingly "male" organisation began flowing in, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Steve, as Dame Stephanie is called by the press and colleagues, foreshadowed the identity disguises that the internet putatively allows women when they are involved in business or professional activities. A 1960s research project revealed that an article that bore a woman's name as the author was rated lower than the same article that carried the name of a male author. This held true not only in what were then traditional male professions - medicine and law - but also in the female-dominated fields of teaching and nursing.

The internet, by its anonymity, was to have diminished the bias. It appears not to be so. Women have been less successful than men in raising funds and, as several have told me, the internet does not provide the epicene cover it had promised, because most business arrangements eventually progress to face-to-face encounters.

Steve has given the institute not only its start-up funding, but the opportunity to change the ways in which women and the workforce can thrive in a technology-driven society. She, Balliol and its alumni have also "seized the moment" for which all of them are to be congratulated and, I hope, emulated.

Dorothy S. Zinberg teaches at the J. F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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