Germany -She fled the Nazis, became a tech tycoon, fought 1960s sexism, gave £70 million to charity and funded new research into autism. Dame Stephanie Shirley’s life sounds like a movie…and now it’s set to become one. Here she tells Zoe Beaty why:

It is hard to sell software then you’re having your bottom pinched. It is hard to sell software when you walk in a room and the men you’re meeting assume you are there to make their tea.

When I set up my company, people laughed – they sniggered and chuckled to themselves, and rarely said much at all to my face. Perhaps, looking back, it gave me fuel – I was a 29-year-old woman who hadn’t been to university, who’d arrived in Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany, who was mother to an autistic child, who was working in technology in the 1960s, as the only woman. I didn’t much like to be patronised. I’d had enough of that as a Jew. I didn’t mean to become a feminist – the term used to be considered very ‘anti-men’, which I couldn’t abide. Is this a peculiar thing to say in 2019? I suppose it might be considered so by some. But the world was very different in 1962 when I started my business, Freelance Programmers, which later became FI and then Xansa.

I had my first taste of male-dominated spaces as a teenager when I was sent to a boy’s school (the only place that could satiate my appetite for mathematics; girls weren’t expected to find passion in such subjects). My first job had been working in computing at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill where there were two pay scales – one for men and one for women. It was quite normal at the time but an atrocious thing nonetheless.

I started my software company from my living room with just £6. I decided to employ mainly women – only three of the first 300 staff were men – and we operated entirely on flexitime to ensure they could work around raising a family. But I wasn’t coming from a feminist perspective. I was just trying to make our working lives easier. Even now, surveys on what women want from their employers always come up with two things: work/life balance and flexibility. For us you could work part-time, freelance, take a job share. You could do annualised hours, min-max hours, have a zero-hours contract (I know those contracts are very unpopular now but they did work well for us in those early days).

If anyone had asked if they could bring their dog to work we would have said yes. (They didn’t.) It was a very different approach – one that brought us attention, and some ridicule. The Times, for instance, began to call us the ‘computer birds’. My letters to important industry leaders were equally ridiculed – ignored, over and over, until, at the suggestion of my husband, Derek, I stopped signing them with my real name (Stephanie Shirley – a double-whammy of femininity) and became ‘Steve’, a family nickname.