IBM Apologizes to Transgender Computer Pioneer 52 Years After Firing Her

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 23, 2020

Lynn Conway
Lynn Conway  (Source:University of Michigan)

IBM apologized to a former employee, Lynn Conway, 82, a trailblazing computer scientist who revolutionized the way computer chips are designed and manufactured, for firing her in 1968 for being transgender, the New York Post reports.

The company also presented Conway with the IBM Lifetime Achievement Award, which IBM's Director of Research, Dario Gil, noted is "given to individuals who have changed the world through technology inventions," Forbes reported.

Conway's innovations "paved the way for how we design and make computing chips today — and forever changed microelectronics, devices, and people's lives," Gil added.

Forbes recounted how Conway had begun the process of transitioning in 1967, with the support of her family. She also found support at work, explaining to her supervisor "that she was 'undertaking a gender transition to resolve a terrible existential situation' she had faced since childhood," recounted the New York Times. But when word reached IBM's CEO, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Watson "fired Conway to avoid the public embarrassment of employing a transwoman."

In addition to losing her job, Conway - who had planned on an amicable divorce - was then targeted by "California's Social Services," which "threatened her with a restraining order if she ever attempted to see her children," Forbes reported.

"While she was coherent and decisive in recognizing that she was born into the wrong gender, society and the government were treating her as if she were a mentally deranged outlaw," the Forbes article noted.

"I'd begun a deeply dangerous traverse and wasn't sure I'd ever get across," Conway recalled.

Conway's gifts could not be suppressed, however. She reinvented herself, starting from scratch and built a career that included groundbreaking work in computer science, the authoring of foundational texts, a visiting professorship at MIT and faculty position at the University of Michigan, and gigs with the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and the U.S. Military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Along the way, "Her research led to successful startups in Silicon Valley, supported national defense, and powered the internet," Forbes reported.

Conway kept her status as a trans woman under strict wraps until 1999, when she came out on her own terms rather than risk being outed by computer historians, the Forbes article said. Conway then assumed a new role as a powerful advocate for the trans community.

The leadership of IBM realized what had happened in 1968, but, despite CEO Louis V. Gerstner being "appalled" at the company's conduct toward Conway, "IBM avoided the issue for the next two decades," Forbes reported.

Twenty years later, society and corporate culture had evolved. In August of this year, Forbes writer Jeremy Alicandri authored a story in which he cited Conway's experience at IBM "as an example of the costly consequences to employers that fail to promote an inclusive culture." After Alicandri sought comment from IBM, the company publicly celebrated Conway's achievements and tendered its apologies to her in a virtual event last month.

"I struggled to hold back tears," Conway said.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments on Facebook