Lynn Conway: A revolutionary transgender innovator of microelectronics
Read our latest Pride Tech Pioneers post about Lynn Conway, an American computer scientist, electrical engineer and transgender activist.
Lynn Conway, an American computer scientist, electrical engineer and transgender activist stands as a prominent name in today’s tech industry. She is described as a “pioneer of microelectronics chip design” and her innovations from 50 years ago are still used to improve the performance of technology we use today. But her achievements are only recently becoming widely known, as early in her career, Lynn was discriminated against for being transgender.
The story unfolds as later in her life, she would decide it’s time to tell her tale. She publicly came out as transgender and became an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. After her transition, Lynn decided to recreate her life and continued to make great contributions to tech.
Lynn was born in 1938 in New York’s reserved Westchester County. Growing up male and experiencing gender dysphoria from a young age, Lynn was a shy kid with an exceptionally high IQ, excellent at math and science. Her parents, a schoolteacher and a chemical engineer, tried hard to suppress what they noticed about Lynn's gender expression. What was referred to as 'transsexualism' at the time wasn’t only a taboo subject in the 1940s; it was unheard of – unimaginable.
This was the start of a long rollercoaster ride, full of limitations and the inability to play the role of her assigned gender. Lynn enrolled in MIT in 1955 and got high grades, but dropped out after an unsuccessful gender transition a few years later. After working menial jobs, she eventually resumed her education at Columbia University and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. Struggling with life in a male role, Lynn had been married to a woman and had two children. She was denied access to their children under the legal constraints in place after she transitioned.
A turning point
Her exceptional performance at Columbia brought her a job offer at IBM. In 1964, Lynn began her career at IBM Research, where she helped develop new supercomputer technology. During this time, she produced multiple-issue, out-of-order dynamic instruction scheduling, a technology still used to improve the performance of computers today.
Her professional success didn’t solve the personal conflict Lynn dealt with all her life. After suffering from severe depression from gender dysphoria, in 1968, Lynn decided that it was time to live as her true self and contacted Dr. Harry Benjamin, who had been of great help to many transgender individuals and was an expert on what was then called "transsexualism". Under Dr. Benjamin's care, Lynn began her medical gender transition. Although she expected to be allowed to transition on the job, IBM fired Lynn in 1968 after she revealed her intention.
Rebuilding her life
Lynn’s transition resulted in the loss of her friends, family and her job at IBM which led her to build a new life for herself. She was determined to succeed against all odds and started her career all over again. By 1971, she was working in computer architecture at Memorex where her incredible contributions caught the attention of engineers at Xerox. In 1973, she was recruited to work at the company’s new research center at Xerox PARC, where her work was considered legendary in the tech industry. She went on to pioneer the Mead & Conway revolution, partially named after her. This success allowed the placement of additional transistors on a single computer chip, which made it possible for engineers to create higher capacity computer chips–that are now transformed into modern-day computer processors. This was the start of a design revolution that initiated the 1980s Silicon Valley boom. This is where Lynn thrived as a woman and as an engineer.
She moved on from Xerox Parc in the early 1980s to focus on her personal life. After working for a short period of time for the Defense Department, she took on as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, and later as the Associate Dean of engineering. This is where she met Charlie, her partner for the past 13 years. She continued to build an exceptional career.
Breaking the silence
After decades of silence, Lynn decided to share her story in 1999. This was after computer historians discovered her early work on DIS and this is when she realized she had nothing to hide. Fearlessly, she came out as transgender by creating her own website to narrate her story
and took well-deserved credit for the exceptional work she had done while living as Robert Sanders (a pseudonym created to protect her family). Lynn also reunited with her daughters, living a happy life as a woman for over 30 years. She took back the part of her past that she had to give up, making up for lost time in the present.
A long overdue apology
In 2020, fifty-two years after Lynn was fired, around 1,200 IBM employees signed on the company website to celebrate the life and career of Lynn Conway. This led to IBM hosting a virtual ceremony to publicly apologize for how she’d been treated.
The apology may be 52 years late, but Lynn’s story became part of a revolution in social acceptance. For her, this apology has become a symbol of humanity and celebrates growth.
“The thing is, this story is not entirely about me, or even about IBM,” Lynn Conway says. “We’re the messengers. Our story is a lesson: you can never take for granted that you really know what you’re doing now and how it will affect the future. It’s a new kind of social awareness.”
A revolutionary transgender activist
After going public, Lynn began work in transgender activism, planning to "illuminate and normalize the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition". She has worked hard to provide help to other transgender women going through transition and her website maintains medical resources along with emotional advice.
Her work also highlights equal opportunities and employment protection for transgender people in the tech industry; she indicates no one should have to hide their true identity to pursue career aspirations. Her efforts include getting acceptance for transgender inclusion in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Code of Ethics. This code became fully LGBT inclusive in 2014, influencing the world's largest engineering professional society with 425,000 members in 160 countries.
Lynn has experienced her share of setbacks and unfair discrimination, but her contributions to the tech industry are undeniable. Her story and persistent work will surely help pave the way for a more inclusive culture in the future.
Lynn Conway’s photo used in the banner above is by Charles Rogers