Lynn Conway is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Emerita, at the University of Michigan. Her life-long fascination with science and technology has seen her spend her career working at IBM, Xerox PARC, the University of Michigan and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1968, Conway finished her gender transition, but due to the lack of support, decided to continue her scientific work in stealth mode and keep her trans identity a secret. Conway’s inventions went on to transform computer engineering.
“My work paved the way for the modern microchips found in almost all high-technology systems, including computers, mobile phones and the internet,” Conway says.
In 1998, with retirement approaching, Conway made the decision to come out as a trans woman on her website, lynnconway.com. There, she offered support to transgender people across the world, as well as encouraging a more tolerant society.
Changing the way computers are manufactured and how society sees trans people
Conway was born in 1938 in Mount Vernon, New York. As a child, Conway showed an interest in science and technology, which grew from her interest in BBC radio broadcasts.
She went on to study Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1955 to 1959. Despite being ranked in the top 2% of her class, a failed attempt at gender reassignment led Conway to drop out. She then studied Electrical Engineering, Computer Science at Columbia University between 1961 and 1963.
Her success there led Conway to work as a researcher at IBM, where she focused on their Advanced Computing Systems. But in 1968, Conway was able to complete her gender transition, becoming Lynn Conway — which cost her job at IBM, relationships with her friends and her wider support network.
This led Conway to keep her trans identity a secret at work when she started her new position at Memorex and later at Xerox PARC.
Yet her dedication to science continued and Conway’s work greatly impacted the way computers are designed and manufactured, with these inventions:
Design Rules for Silicon Gate Technology
To advance the semiconductor manufacturing process, Conway developed scalable design rules for silicon gate technology.
Dynamic Instruction Scheduling
Conway and her team built a method for dynamic instruction scheduling, which assists modern superscalar processors.
VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) Design
VLSI has revolutionised chip design, allowing for the quick creation of complicated integrated circuits.
Manufacturing equal opportunities
Conway now lives in the countryside with her husband and continues to advocate for fair and equal opportunities, employment protections and rights for transgender people. Because of her, transgender rights are now included in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Code of Ethics.
52 years later, IBM apologised to Conway for how she was treated.
“Thanks to your courage, your example, and all the people who followed in your footsteps, as a society we are now in a better place,” says Diane Gherson, IBM Senior Vice President of Human Affairs. “But that doesn’t help you, Lynn, probably our very first employee to come out. And for that, we deeply regret what you went through — and know I speak for all of us.”
Conway was highlighted in The Trans100 in 2015, celebrated as one of the 21 ‘Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture’ by Times Magazine in 2014 and named as one of the Stonewall 40 trans heroes in 2009.
“By focusing on building your social capital as learners and contributors, innovators, leaders and explorers — instead of merely seeking money and formal positions and the trappings of power — you’ll expand your social agility and your lifelong opportunities to team up with cool people, go exploring, have exciting adventures and leave tracks behind,” Conway said during her 2018 Winter Commencement address to U-M graduates.