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Jun 9th 2021

Lynn Conway: Computer Science Trailblazer and Transgender Pioneer

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Lynn Conway is a name that should be known in every household, thanks to her incredible contributions to technology and modern computer processors. But her achievements are only now becoming widely known, as Conway was discriminated against early in her career for being transgender.

Conway rebuilt her life in tech after her transition and continued to make great advances and contributions to the field. But later in life, she decided it was time to tell her story. She publicly came out as transgender and became a pioneer and an advocate for LGBTQ rights, as she relates in a 2013 HuffPost essay.

Enabling the Creation of Modern Computer Chips

In 1964, Lynn Conway secured a job at IBM after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. She moved to California and began working on a project that would completely transform the face of modern computer processors. Conway invented dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS), which allowed computers to reorganize how they handled commands to optimize data flow and efficiency. This invention enabled the modern-day personal computer. But for decades, no one knew that Conway was behind this invention — which changed the world of tech as we know it — because IBM fired her.

In 1968, Conway decided that it was time to live as her true self. She had begun undergoing hormone treatments as a part of her transition a year earlier, but now it was time to have gender reassignment surgery. She informed her superiors at IBM that she was, in fact, a transgender woman. According to the New York Times, her immediate managers wanted her to stay with the company and suggested that she leave, undergo transition and start again at IBM under a new name as a new employee. But the higher-ups were not comfortable with having her working at the company. Lynn was fired from IBM for being transgender.

Building a New Life

As Conway explains in a Los Angeles Times article, her life during and right after her transition wasn’t easy. She was unmoored after being fired from IBM and struggled to pay her bills. But she was determined to succeed, against the odds, and started all over again in her career. She took a low-level programming job and worked her way up through the ranks. In 1973, Xerox offered Conway a position at its new (now famous) research division, PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), which is where the personal computer, word processors and Ethernet were invented.

Her work at PARC is legendary in the tech community, and she spearheaded the Mead & Conway revolution, which was partly named after her. As Computer World details, this achievement allowed the placement of more transistors on a single computer chip, which made it easier for engineers to create more efficient and higher-capacity computer chips — which directly led to modern computer processors. This design revolution was the spark that started the Silicon Valley boom in the 1980s.

A Transgender Pioneer

After her time at Xerox PARC, Conway moved to the Department of Defense before settling into a career in academia, teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later at the University of Michigan.

In 1999, Conway decided it was time to break her silence on her gender transition. After computer historians uncovered her early work on DIS, she realized she no longer had anything to fear from her history coming to light. She has since become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and created a website to tell her story of her gender transition.

IBM honored Lynn Conway with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. During the virtually held ceremony, SVP of Human Resources Diane Gherson publicly apologized to Conway for how she’d been treated by the company. Over 50 years later, the apology is long overdue, but Conway told the Los Angeles Times that it’s important to recognize a path forward and take away lessons for the future rather than focus on recrimination.

Conway experienced her share of setbacks due to discrimination, but her contributions to modern-day computing technology are undeniable. Hopefully, her success and advocacy work will help to pave the way for a more inclusive STEM culture in the decades to come.

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