US-RSE Pride Month Spotlight - Lynn Conway

Published: Jun 26, 2023 by Tab Memmott

US-RSE’s DEI working group (DEI-WG) is proud to help US-RSE celebrate and participate in Pride Month. Each week during Pride Month, the US-RSE will spotlight a member of the LGBTQIA+ community who has been involved in computing, science, engineering, and/or math, and have inspired our members through their accomplishments in their careers and their personal stories.

This week’s Pride Month spotlight features Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway is a pioneer of microelectronics chip design. She attended both MIT and Columbia University and, in 1964, was recruited by IBM to work on an advanced supercomputer. While at IBM, she transitioned and was fired by the company in 1968 after revealing her will to live openly as a woman. Lynn was forced to rebuild her career from scratch. She went on to do momentous work at organizations such as Memorex, Xerox PARC, and DARPA. In 2014 Time magazine named her one of the “21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture.”

Lynn Conway, CC BY 3.0
<>, via Wikimedia Commons
Lynn Conway, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In a hopeful reflection published in the HuffPost in 2013 following her White House visit during the Obama administration, Lynn Conway parts with optimism in “going towards brighter shades of ‘out.’” Conway’s career and life were shaped by coming out as a trans woman, a tale well-known to many transgender people in the sciences. Her hopeful statement of transgender people not having to hide or take on additional labor to be valued has, unfortunately, not been realized. In 2023, the juxtaposition of increased visibility and hatred of queer people, particularly those who are transgender, provides a different set of perils than could have been envisioned. Yet, Conway has not sat on the sidelines to watch this. On the contrary, she is a fierce proponent of trans rights and setting the record straight to this day. In her last few posts on Twitter, as of this writing, she shares information about adults experiencing issues in Florida as a result of anti-trans legislation and a timely article detailing the brutal backlash in Nazi Germany against the establishment of gender clinics. She’s stayed in effective conversation with the public, from her engagement with IEEE standards of ethics to de-platforming proponents of ‘reparative therapy’ on children in 2015. Her work in this space will live on and grow as the community embraces more gender expression and fluidity. We could spend a great deal of time here detailing her experience in this way within our shared field of RSE and, even more broadly, as an intellectual bearing a responsibility to move a group from the margins. However, let’s digress into her career, which, while inseparable from her experience as a trans woman, is impressive in its own right.

She began her research career as a successful academic and thrived at prestigious universities such as MIT and Columbia. She reflects positively on her personal website about her time at MIT and the creativity and innovation she was part of there. Lynn was recruited from graduate school to join IBM at the inception of what is now known as IBM Advanced Computing Systems. This initiated a time in her life that she details as “… the challenge, the confusion, the camaraderie, the chaos, and the fun – the feeling of what it was really like to be there, at the frontier, at that time.” An incredible feeling that many of us in RSE have come to chase! And chase she did, with these comrades, right into building the foundations of computer architecture and dynamic scheduling. It’s at this stage that her story intersects with her transgender identity. Having come to understand the incongruence of what her brain and the physical world had prescribed, she transitioned while at IBM and was soon fired for doing so. This left a mark on her for many years, a mark of fear of retribution. Despite the difficulties she faced during her life, she went on to make even more remarkable contributions to our field. Working for XEROX PARC, she went on to develop the rules for Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI), an undeniable achievement in Computer Science. Her career then went on the include academic engagements at MIT, a long tour at DARPA, and finally, her distinguished appointments at the University of Michigan until her retirement. All of which come with their own set of impressive accomplishments! Observing her graceful and powerful navigation of the issues at the time and her accomplishments, one may erroneously see them as less than the immense mountains she had to climb over. This is an apt metaphor, given her love of outdoor sports, especially rock climbing! She elaborates this point further, “In a strange way, while rock-climbing years ago, I was learning exactly what I needed to transition, learning how to overcome fear….” This mindset and her remarkable mind, in general, surely gave us all several blessings to be grateful for in our shared future. I echo the hope for a more radiant future for out and marginalized people – we must build it together – and that applies to the work we do as RSEs.

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