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June marks Pride month, and I wanted to celebrate some of the leading computer scientists in the LGBTQ+ community. I have previously made posts about Alan Turing and Edie Windsor, two legends in computer science. Today I wanted to talk about another remarkable person, Lynn Conway.
Conway’s innovations have impacted chip design worldwide. Today, a lot of the high tech companies and computing methods have foundations from her work. Conway has become influential not only with her work in computer science but also as transgender woman, with a website that helps to “illuminate and normalise the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition”
Lynn Conway was born Robert in 1938, to middle class parents, a school teacher and chemical engineer, in Mount Vernon, New York.
Whilst Conway was a child, her parents realised that she wasn’t a “normal” male child. They tried to punish and suppress this as transsexualism was a taboo and unthinkable subject in the 1940s. It wasn’t until Conway was 17 and enrolled at MIT that she began to present as a girl and injected oestrogen to achieve desired physical changes.
Conway was a natural engineer and excelled academically, so rightly earned her place at MIT, unfortunately she ended up leaving as she didn’t have enough social and medical support. However, she persevered and, in 1961, achieved a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering, from Columbia University, in just two years. During her time at Columbia, she impressed an instructor who was an IBM executive. This eventually led to a position on a team that was secretly designing the world’s fastest supercomputer. This was a side pet project of the IBM Chairman Thomas Watson Jr. This job led to a move to Menlo Park, California, where Conway was pricing engineering innovations that remained integral to IBM’s most advanced computers.
Over these years, Conway got married and had two daughters. Unfortunately, family life greatened the inner turmoil that Conway was facing. Although her career was on the up, Conway was nearly suicidal by 1967 due to the growing personal conflict. She contacted Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was an expert on transsexualism. Ultimately, in 1968, Conway decided to go forward with gender reassignment surgery.
Conway had it all planned out for her career and gender reassignment. She would change her name on company records and get transferred to another lab, thus giving her a fresh start. This didn’t go to plan though as IBM corporate management weren’t able to see how it would work. They apparently feared disruption, so Conway’s immediate supervisors said that they would support her move to another company lab. However, the decision from higher up was that Conway was to be quietly fired. Conway had quickly let go of any grudges as she believed that “they thought they were doing the right thing” and gender transition and reassignment surgery were alien concepts at the time.
Back then, there were no resources in place for people who were fired to sex or gender discrimination, so this loss came at a bad time. The surgery was a few months away and was going to cost $4000, a huge chunk of money in the 60s. This was then to be accompanied by another several thousand dollars worth of related procedures such as hormone therapy and counselling. Due to this, the family had to go on welfare and the strain eventually led to Conway’s wife stopping her contact with her daughters. It was 14 years later when she got to see them again.
The story of Conway’s gender transition is definitely eye opening to how the corporate world dealt with the LGBTQ+ community.
Conway fought on and looked for jobs in the electrical engineering community, now known as silicon valley. She worked her way up in start-ups and, in 1973, received an offer from the research lab Xerox which had just been established in Palo Alto. After this she partnered with Carver Mead, a Caltech engineering professor, to codify the design rules for new technology of very large-scale integrated circuits (aka VLSI). They created a textbook in 1979 that encompassed the rules that a generation of engineering students used, known as “Mead-Conway”. They also recognised the potential of silicon, which helped in the creation of the Pentium chip.
In 1983, Conway was recruited to head up a supercomputer program for the Defence Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (aka DARPA).
In 1989, through her groundbreaking work, she was elected into the National Academy of Engineering. At this point in her career Conway had become a professor and associate dean at the University of Michigan in the College of Engineering.
In 2002, Conway married Charles Rogers, a fellow engineer.
Conway has said that following her surgery, alongside her career, her personal life also thrived, saying that she “had been a very shy, withdrawn, unhappy person while I was forced to live as a male…I was taken seriously in my work at IBM because I came up with outstanding ideas. But beyond that, I was pretty much ignored.”
Conway has said that after she had the transitioning surgery she had to navigate through her career in “stealth mode”. Which meant that she would tell people that she was a cisgender woman to be accepted into the corporate world. She had many contributions to the computing world and people thought that she was breaking gender barriers, when in fact, she was breaking transgender barriers.
It was in 1999 that Conway came out as a transgender woman to her friends and coworkers. She also started to write online journals reflecting on her life to highlight issues of gender identity and the process of gender transition. She writes about how her story started in the 1940s, “long before such gender identity conditions were understood.” Her writing has helped other transgender people see that they aren’t alone and that people shouldnt have to hide their true identity to pursue career aspirations. She has consistently advocated for equal rights and her efforts were acknowledged and rewarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest professional engineering society. In 2013, they put transgender inclusion into its Code of Ethics. Then, a year later, the code was expanded to include protection for all LGBTQ+ communities.
In 2020, IBM gave Conway a lifetime achievement award to celebrate her career, unfortunately during most of which she had to conceal her true gender identity. IBM’s director of research, Dario Gil said “Lynn’s extraordinary technical achievements helped define the modern computing industry. She paved the way for how we design and make computing chips today…and forever changed microelectronics, devices and people’s lives.”
Along with the award, IBM, unexpectedly, 52 years after the fact, publicly apologised for the way they had fired Conway during her transition.
Diane Gherson, IBM senior vice president of HR, said “I wanted to say to you here today, Lynn, for that experience in our company and all the hardships that followed, I am truly sorry”.Today at 84, Conway is still enjoying life and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community. Not only is she a pioneer of microelectronics chip design, Conway is also a mentor for generations that follow her path to gender transition, and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
“5 LGBT Computer Scientists You Should Know”. Barrette, D. Jun 2018
“Column: IBM apologizes for firing a transgender pioneer, 52 years late”. Hiltzik, M. Nov 2020
“Wired women: engineer Lynn Conway’s secret”. Lynch, D.
“How Lynn Conway broke down barriers as a computer scientist and transgender icon”. Brennan, D. 2021