Lynn Conway is a pioneering computer scientist, whose innovations from nearly 50 years ago are still used to improve the performance of smartphones and computers we use today. Methods and processes she developed created entire industries and paved the way for several Silicon Valley startups.
Yet in spite of all this, she was fired from IBM in 1964 for being a transgender woman. Her extensive work as a transgender activist in the 21st century made it so this act would be illegal if it were to happen today.
Last year, IBM officially apologized for firing Conway — 52 years after it happened. They also gave her a lifetime achievement award to celebrate her prolific career; during nearly all of which she had to conceal her true gender identity.
“Lynn was recently awarded the rare IBM Lifetime Achievement Award, given to individuals who have changed the world through technology inventions,” IBM’s director of research Dario Gil said in a statement. “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.”
Conway was born in 1938 in White Plains, N.Y. She was described as a shy child who experienced gender dysphoria from a young age. She also had a remarkably high IQ and excelled at math and science.
She entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955 and received high grades, but left school after an unsuccessful gender transition a few years later. She eventually resumed her education at Columbia University, and received B.S. and M.S.E.E. degrees in 1962 and ‘63.
In 1964, Conway was recruited to work at IBM, on an architecture team assigned to developing an advanced supercomputer. In her early years at the company, she invented multiple-issue, out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling, a breakthrough still used to improve the performance of computers today.
As the medical climate and practices evolved, Conway decided in 1968 to once again attempt gender transition. She sought out pioneering sexologist and endocrinologist Henry Benjamin, who offered her the counseling and hormones needed for her transition.
As Conway later recounted, when she first told IBM about her gender transition, Gene Myron Amdahl, the company’s director of advanced computing systems, was supportive, but chief executive Thomas J. Watson was not. She was fired as a result.
Over the next 30 years, Conway had to work in what she described as “stealth mode,” telling people she was a cisgender woman in order to be accepted in the corporate world.
Her contributions were myriad, working as a digital systems designer at Memorex, on the “LSI Systems” group at Xerox Park, and as a visiting professor at several universities, including MIT. People thought she was breaking the gender barrier for computer science, when in fact it was the transgender barrier she was breaking.
In 1999, Conway began coming out as a transgender woman to her friends and colleagues. She also started to reflect on her life in physical and online journals in an effort to “illuminate and normalize the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition.”
“If I’d been born in the 1980s and had coped with transsexualism as a teenager in the 1990s, there’s a chance I’d have been allowed to socially and hormonally transition in high school or college, and undergo SRS at age 18 to 20. If born to understanding parents who’d supported such an early transition, I could have gone on to a full and normal life as a young woman, and this story would have turned out very differently,” she wrote in the introduction to “Lynn Conway’s Retrospective” (1999-2004). “However, this story starts in the 1940s, long before such gender identity conditions were understood.”
Her writings helped other transgender people see that they weren’t alone, that others felt the same way as them. Conway also wanted to change the narrative for LGBTQ+ people in the corporate world; she didn’t want people to have to hide their true identity to pursue career aspirations.
She set out advocating for equal opportunities and employment protections for transgender people in the high-technology industry. She wrote criticisms of literature and philosophy that marginalized the community.
Conway’s efforts were rewarded in 2013, when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE, the world’s largest professional engineering society) put transgender inclusion into its Code of Ethics. The following year, the code expanded to include protections for all LGBTQ+ individuals.
While she dealt with roadblocks at nearly every step of her career, Conway made countless contributions as a transgender activist and trailblazing computer scientist.
“Lynn Conway is not only a revolutionary pioneer in the design of VLSI [very large-scale integration] systems,” National Academy of Engineering president John L. Anderson told Forbes, “but just as important, Lynn has been very brave in telling her own story, and her perseverance has been a reminder to society that it should not be blind to the innovations of women, people of color, or others who don’t fit long outdated — but unfortunately, persistent — perceptions of what an engineer looks like.”
Having already left a lasting legacy, Conway is enjoying life. She’s 83 and says she’s “owning her age.”