Lynn Conway was a trans woman in tech − and underappreciated for decades after she helped launch the computing revolution

Lynn Conway was a trans woman in tech − and underappreciated for ...

Lynn Conway may hold the record for longest delay between being unfairly fired and receiving an apology for it. In 1968, IBM – a company that now covers its logo in a rainbow flag each June for Pride Month – fired Conway, who died on June 9, 2024, at 86, when she expressed her intention to transition. IBM eventually apologized to the now-famous computing expert, but only 52 years later, when Conway was 82 years old.

Although Conway’s start as a trans woman while at IBM was inauspicious, she quickly found a new job under her post-transition name and identity at the prestigious Xerox PARC and for many years kept the fact that she was trans from her employers to avoid being unfairly dismissed again. In so doing, Conway escaped becoming a target of the sensationalistic and harmful news coverage about trans people that dominated mainstream media in the 20th century. At the same time, however, this meant she was also not able to fully tell her story.

Even today, mainstream media coverage of trans people often positions them as unfortunate victims or questions trans people’s right to exist at all.

Through her groundbreaking work on chip design, Conway joined a long line of illustrious women in computing in the 20th century who made computers into the powerful and flexible tools that they are today. Conway’s co-invention of very large-scale integration, or VLSI, rocketed chip design into the future. VLSI allowed etching circuits on a computer chip’s surface to be as space efficient as possible, ensuring the maximum number of transistors on a chip.

Lynn Conway on the role she played in the computing revolution.

Maximizing the number of transistors on a chip meant that the resulting computer using that chip could be as fast and powerful as possible. For this innovation, Conway received industry and academic recognition. However, that recognition was long delayed.

The ‘Conway Effect’

Like many other women in computing, however, Conway felt that she had been denied her due credit because of the way that her male co-inventor of VLSI, Carver Mead, was repeatedly given more credit and incorrectly perceived as the lead on the project that led to this important innovation. Although Mead did not necessarily seek to unfairly take credit for himself, what Conway dubbed the Conway Effect led to him getting more, or sometimes all, of the credit.

The Conway Effect is a slightly modified version of what is known as the Mathilda Effect: Women’s scientific contributions are often attributed to the nearest man working on the same topic. The Conway Effect states that people who are “othered” in computing, including women and people of color of all genders, form a group that society does not expect to make great advances, and so they are not given full credit when they do because they are literally overlooked.

Conway pointed out that, after some initial recognition…

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