Lynn Conway – parallel computer processing pioneer.
Her research on integrated circuits advanced the Internet age by years. Now she finds herself revisiting her earliest, groundbreaking work in computers, which she long kept secret because, back then, she existed as a man. – Scientific American, December 2000.
More than 30 years ago while in her 20’s Lynn Conway worked at IBM developing ways for a single CPU to perform multiple operations simultaneously without interfering with itself. We now term such computing "parallel processing". In her 30’s and 40’s working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, she helped to develop the techniques for increased capacity integrated circuit design and manufacturing that boosted the number of transistors on a computer chip from thousands to millions. These new chips were commercialized by the likes of Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics in the 1980’s in computers with multiple-issue and out-of order execution capabilities.
After her work at Xerox, Conway went on to generate advances in artificial intelligence and overseeing plans for high-performance computing at the US Department of Defense. She later served as an associate dean at the University of Michigan, where she is now professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science. She excelled in her later work as an important female scientist in this country. Her early work at IBM, however, was conducted as a man – and long kept secret because of her changed gender identity.
Born male, Conway lived her early life as a man. She married and fathered two children. After surgery to become a woman, IBM fired her and child welfare authorities prevented her from having contact with her family. When contacted by Scientific American about an article about Conway, IBM’s board of directors declined to comment. She had to rebuild her career without reference to work at IBM and job offers evaporated every time she told prospective employers about her medical history. She finally got a job as a contract programmer and entered what she calls "deep stealth mode" about her gender transformation in order to remain employed.
Conway says she remembers from early childhood that she was not a boy and once in college at MIT began treating herself with black market hormones to try to match her body to her gender identity. Suicidal feelings led her to conclude that living as a man was impossible. After undergoing surgery to fully transform herself, however, Conway continued to live as a man due to the stigma associated with transgender behavior in the early 1960’s.
Researchers estimate that a mismatch between gender identity and physical sex affects one in 30,000 to one in 1,000 people. Although "gender dysphoria" is listed as a psychological condition, there is evidence that the condition is a result of missed hormonal signals during embryonic development. In the U.S. today about 2,500 males a year undergo the transformation surgery to bring their bodies in line with their gender identity.
In 1998 Conway’s early work in parallel computing was being researched by a computer scientist at Clemson University. Her personal notes and archives became integral to the research and gave her some impetus to begin to reveal who she really was and take the credit that rightfully belonged to her. Today she has energetically taken on the challenge of being known as a transsexual woman. Ironically, she says, the more seamlessly transgendered people fit into their new lives, the less visible they are as role models for young people struggling with similar issues. So she maintains a website, lynnconway.com, that is a significant source of information on the medical, legal, and social issues for transsexual women who regularly face discrimination, threats and violence.
In the past 30 years, gender transitions have become much easier, and Conway hopes that her experiences will provide an example for the younger generation. She hopes that what caused her so much pain could be seen as a correctable medical condition to be forgotten as soon as the surgical scars heal.
(Excerpted from Scientific American magazine, December 2000)