Q&A WITH LYNN CONWAY, COMPUTER SCIENTIST, ELECTRICAL ENGINEER, AND SCIENCE EDUCATOR

When did you realize you were interested in science? Did anyone encourage you?

My father was a chemical engineer and my mother a kindergarten teacher. Raised as a boy back in the 1940s/50s, I became fascinated with astronomy and electronics and enjoyed creating things. Although very shy, I did well in math and science. I had no concept of what it meant to have a career, but it somehow seemed predestined that I’d do science and engineering when I grew up. Some of my best teachers really reinforced that feeling.

Despite your pioneering work at IBM in the 1960s, you were fired for expressing your gender identity. Can you describe the difficulties and barriers to entry you experienced and how you overcame them?

My gender struggles during childhood had a valuable side effect: my intellectual life became my escape. Later, at Columbia University, my capabilities came to the attention of IBM Research and I was asked to join the staff in 1964. I made pioneering computer research contributions at IBM and really loved the work there. Sadly, IBM fired me in 1968 when I revealed that I was transitioning.

Starting all over again in a secret new identity, I was very lucky to get a job as a contract programmer. Most men back then felt uncomfortable using computer keyboards, because they looked like “women’s typewriters,” so young women who’d been studying math and science had a chance to become much-needed programmers.

Because of all the research knowledge I gained in my secret past, I often surprised employers with what I could do, and I soon advanced to becoming a computer architect at Memorex Corporation. However, for many decades I lived in fear of being “outed” and again losing my career.

Your work in microelectronic chip design has had a major worldwide impact. What specifically did you do?

Recruited by Xerox Palo Alto Research Center [PARC] in 1973, I invented some elegantly simplified methods that enabled computer engineers to design complex microelectronic chips, and I was principal author of the textbook Introduction to VLSI Systems. I then pioneered the teaching of these new methods while at MIT. My new VLSI [very-large-scale integration] course spread rapidly to over 100 universities worldwide and launched a revolution in VLSI microchip design during the 1980s. Back at PARC I also invented and demonstrated an Internet-based e-commerce system for rapid chip prototyping, thus spawning the “fabless-design + silicon- foundry” industrial paradigm of modern semiconductor-chip design and manufacturing.

But since as a woman I didn’t “look like an engineer” during the 1970s, Silicon Valley’s elites had no clue what I’d actually done back then, and almost all credit went to others. That began to change in 2012, when my “VLSI Reminiscences” were published in a special issue of the IEEE Solid-State Circuits Magazine, revealing how—closeted and hidden behind the scenes—I had conceived the ideas that reshaped an entire industry.

Part of your work illuminating and educating people on gender identity and gender transition involves a kind of gonzo journalism wherein you are exposed to hundreds of people’s stories. What stands out to you most, or has had the biggest effect on you, during this process?

When I retired from teaching at the University of Michigan in 1999, I began quietly “uncovering” my secret past on my website. Within a few years, the site became a beacon of hope and encouragement for trans people around the world.

I was stunned by the sheer numbers of people who began contacting me by email, especially the unexpectedly large numbers and great diversity of trans women. Until then, psychiatrists claimed that only 1 in 30,000 boys and 1 in 100,000 girls felt a strong need to correct their gender assignments. However, by doing some common-sense data gathering and using simple statistics, I determined that the number was no smaller than about 1 in 500—about 100 times more trans people than the psychiatrists thought there were! This also brought into doubt all their other “scientific” claims about trans people, many of which have since been refuted.

How have you seen the landscape improve for trans women in technology (partially due to your tireless effort)?

In the last ten years or so, there have been remarkable shifts in the visibility and social acceptance of all LGBT people. There are now wonderful employment opportunities for trans women educated in science, technology, engineering, and math. Especially if they transitioned while in college or earlier and can begin their careers in their new identities.

However, the overall picture is still a mixed bag. Many social and emotional crosscurrents need to be navigated if someone transitions on the job. Highly capable minority trans women have enormous difficulties accessing a welcoming and supportive higher education. Truly helpful advice, counseling, and mentoring are often hard to come by. We also face ongoing difficulties with institutionalized transphobia in social sectors, such as policing and medicine.

What advice would you give young women (especially young trans women) who want to get into STEM?

During this time of rapid cultural evolution, ever more people will participate in the adventure of expanding the techno-social envelope of “what it’s possible to do.” At the forefront of the Social Age will be those who creatively surf at the edge of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, architecture, design, and art. Being natural collaborators, women will be greatly advantaged because they easily gravitate into supportive self-empowerment groups where they can learn and share new ideas and methods. There’s no better time than now for young women to get into STEM and get out there surfing on the wondrous incoming wave!

A pioneer in both the field of microelectronics chip design and activism for transgender women in STEM careers, LYNN CONWAY is professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When not working, she enjoys going on outdoor adventures with her husband, Charlie. Learn more at lynnconway.​com.

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