To many people Steve Shirley is an early entrepreneur in software development who made a fortune; a woman who rebranded herself with a man’s name in order to avoid being ignored by the blue chip companies she wanted to use her services; and a woman who employed women working from home to create her business via this new flexible-working model. That is probably how I thought of her. A leader and a brave woman who made good in a world made difficult for her, first by her birth (she escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport aged 5) and then by her gender. Having just read her autobiography Let It Go (recently republished) I realised how much more to her there was. Indeed, by the end I realised I’m not sure that the descriptions I’ve just given are how she would want to be remembered because there is something central to her life I haven’t mentioned: she had a severely autistic son. From his original diagnosis this blunt fact dominated her life, despite her managing to continue to excel in the business world.
Her book is stark. She is brave in what she writes. I wrote recently about how when giving talks about my own life – by comparison uneventful and easy – I can choose what I do and don’t relate. Shirley’s book would seem to hold nothing back, although even that may not be true. Her son Giles wasn’t just ‘on the spectrum’, in that revolting phrase cavalierly trotted out so often, he was classed as ‘undeducable’. For part of his life locked up in an institution for ‘mental defectives’ (this was the 1970’s), he died following a seizure aged just 35. Trying always to give a mother’s love to a violent son who couldn’t really speak whilst trying to ensure her nascent company thrived simultaneously, it isn’t surprising Shirley herself had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, nor that her marriage suffered as a result. With today being the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week it seems fitting to celebrate her life, and what she went on to achieve in and for the field of autism.
Her child, as for many parents, was core to her being. Watching a child suffer yet need to be locked up, she wanted to find a more humane treatment. In her case, her successful business made it financially possible for her to find a solution, creating a home for Giles and, in due course, others that was much more of a domestic home than an institution; and then creating more such homes and ultimately a school. She became involved with research, funding research, funding synthesis of research to enable much more clarity to be achieved about what autism was and wasn’t and what treatments did or did not help alleviate suffering. As a multi-millionaire all of that was possible for her. More, it seems to have felt like a moral imperative that this was what she had to do, particularly once the stresses of being always there for her son ceased after his death.
It is a remarkable story and one for which many parents of autistic children will feel deeply grateful. Her own experience of the breakdown due to the multiple stresses she was attempting to operate under at full stretch was barely touched on, but no doubt many readers in the HE sector will recognize the challenges posed by multiple, conflicting demands on limited time and energy. As has been remarked so often, many academics work ridiculously long hours, trying to satisfy the requirements of heavy teaching loads, pastoral care and their research (not necessarily in that order). If simultaneously they are trying to care for a young family or elderly parents the circle simply can’t be squared. Burnout, breakdown and despair are not infrequent consequences. As a sector we frequently don’t have the balance right, nor do we often manage it as individuals. Most academics have fallen into the profession because of love of research and research, when it is going well, can be all-consuming. The ‘highs’ of discovery are, in my view, like no other. But the grunt work occupies the bulk of the time. Teaching, too, can be infinitely rewarding and infinitely time-consuming. Our careers and our universities too often overlook the need for space to breathe and recoup with family and friends. This is not healthy in any sense. Mental health awareness week should remind us of this.
But there are other demands on us too – emotional demands provoked by racism, sexism and just about any other kind of -ism. I have placed my order for Angela Saini’s new book Superior to help inform me about the insidious (and growing) forms of the first of these. The misogyny and inappropriate behaviour that so many women face is highlighted by a strong recent article by Charlotte Proudman – this time not in academia but in the legal profession where the behaviour of those responsible is particularly egregious as they are the ones who pass judgement on others guilty of similar crimes. She is a woman who has faced plenty of sexism herself so she knows of which she writes. The harassment, bullying and intimidation that remains endemic across our society all contribute to an individual’s shaky mental well-being. Letting these ills go takes time and energy that many of us simply can’t summon.
Steve Shirley’s autobiography is a stern reminder of the challenges many people face in work and at home. Her book is at times deeply moving and uplifting. She is a brave woman, and not just a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who defeated the sexist odds. Her book’s title comes from the wisdom she has gained in not holding on to those things you have in reality moved on from (but keeping the central tenets close). I recommend this book to you.