On August 29, 1968, IBM’s CEO fired computer scientist and transgender pioneer Lynn Conway to avoid the public embarrassment of employing a transwoman. Nearly 52 years later, in an act that defines its present-day culture, IBM is apologizing and seeking forgiveness. Jeremy Alicandri writes via Forbes reports: On January 2, 1938, Lynn Conway’s life began in Mount Vernon, NY. With a reported IQ of 155, Conway was an exceptional and inquisitive child who loved math and science during her teens. She went on to study physics at MIT and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at Columbia University’s Engineering School. In 1964, Conway joined IBM Research, where she made major innovations in computer design, ensuring a promising career in the international conglomerate (IBM was the 7th largest corporation in the world at the time). Recently married and with two young daughters, she lived a seemingly perfect life. But Conway faced a profound existential challenge: she had been born as a boy.
[W]hile IBM knew of its key role in the Conway saga, the company remained silent. That all changed in August 2020. When writing an article on LGBTQ diversity in the automotive industry, I included Conway’s story as an example of the costly consequences to employers that fail to promote an inclusive culture. I then reached out to IBM to learn if its stance had changed after 52 years. To my surprise, IBM admitted regrets and responsibility for Conway’s firing, stating, “We deeply regret the hardship Lynn encountered.” The company also explained that it was in communication with Conway for a formal resolution, which came two months later. Arvind Krishna, IBM’s CEO, and other senior executives had determined that Conway should be recognized and awarded “for her lifetime body of technical achievements, both during her time at IBM and throughout her career.” Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research, who revealed the award during the online event, says, “Lynn was recently awarded the rare IBM Lifetime Achievement Award, given to individuals who have changed the world through technology inventions. Lynn’s extraordinary technical achievements helped define the modern computing industry. She paved the way for how we design and make computing chips today — and forever changed microelectronics, devices, and people’s lives.” The company also acknowledged that after Conway’s departure in 1968, her research aided its own success. “In 1965 Lynn created the architectural level Advanced Computing System-1 simulator and invented a method that led to the development of a superscalar computer. This dynamic instruction scheduling invention was later used in computer chips, greatly improving their performance,” a spokesperson stated.
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