IBM apologizes to transgender woman, 52-years after firing her from the company

IBM apologizes to transgender woman, 52-years after firing her from the company

KOLKATA (India) — Technology giant IBM issued a heartfelt apology to a transgender woman, 52-years after she was fired from the company for being who she was.

Lynn Conway was fired from IBM back in 1968 when she was reportedly ‘transitioning.’ She was a promising young computer engineer at IBM’s Sunnyvale in California.

One day, Conway was called into the office of Gene Myron Amdahl, the then company’s director of advanced computing systems.

When Amdahl heard that she was “undertaking a gender transition” he was supportive. However, the company’s chief executive, Thomas J Watson Jr, did not approve of it.

On that summer day, Amdahl had to convey the grim news.  “I was fired”, wrote Lynn Conway.

Fifty-two years later, a virtual meeting was arranged where Lynn Conway was called back to speak with IBM supervisors. This time, the virtual meeting was witnessed by other company employees.

The meeting was watched last month as Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president of human resources, told Conway that for “transitioning employees” now there is help and support from the company, but no amount of progress could make up for the treatment she had received decades ago.

At 82, Conway was then given a lifetime achievement award for her “pioneering work” in computers, a company spokesperson said.

“It was so unexpected,” Conway said in an interview, adding that she recalled blinking back tears. “It was stunning.”

In 1964 when Lynn Conway had just graduated from Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, she was hired at IBM.

She writes, “It was a golden era in computer research, a time when fundamental breakthroughs were being made across a wide front”. 

A team of architects was working on a project centered on creating a high-speed computer.  Ms. Conway was on the verge of such a breakthrough.  During that period she began undergoing medical treatments.

It was in early 1968, she told her direct supervisor about “undertaking a gender transition to resolve a terrible existential situation” she had been facing since childhood, she wrote.

In her account, she wrote, her direct supervisors wanted her to stay at the company and came up with a plan: She would take a leave from IBM, undergo her transition, and then with the new identity, she would return as a new employee, Ms. Conway said.

However, she later learned that IBM executives feared “scandalous publicity” if her story got out and so they were alarmed.

As reported by Forbes, IBM’s apology was made four months after the Supreme Court ruled that a person could not be fired for being gay or transgender.

The apology, although late, was appreciated by gay and transgender scientists and friends of Ms. Conway as it had validated the work that she and others in the community had contributed in the field of science and technology.  

Rochelle Diamond, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology and also a friend of Ms. Conway said that she learned of the apology on Friday, 20 November, the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), which honors the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was stabbed to death in 1998.

This day is observed annually on November 20 as an honor to the memory of the transgender people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence.

Ms. Diamond, who is also the retired chairwoman of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, said, “This is important for us. It’s another reason why we need to remember and remember all of the people that have died because they were trans and to encourage trans people to be themselves.”

After coming out of IBM, Ms. Conway underwent gender confirmation surgery and began to rebuild her career, and started working with Memorex and Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre. Here she developed computer chip design methods that would eventually be used by tech companies worldwide.

In 1985, she became a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. Conway met her future husband, Charlie, an engineer, after she joined a weekly canoeing group.

Her identity as a transgender was not publicly revealed until 1999 when she said she learned that computer scientists were working on a research project she had been a part of at IBM. According to Conway, it was only a matter of time that someone would figure out what had happened.

In her website, created in 2000, she writes that her goal was to “illuminate and normalize the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition.”

“I also wanted to tell, in my own words, the story of my gender transition from male to female,” Ms. Conway wrote.

In 2005, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals named Ms. Conway engineer of the year in 2005 for her work in computers and for her public outreach efforts.

Ms. Conway said she was never angry at the people who fired her.  This is confirmed when Christine Burns, who is a friend of Ms. Conway, said she never showed bitterness about the way she was fired but that the apology must have felt healing.

Conway’s philosophy, “To go back and slam and blame and defame people, there is a problem with that because it tends to divide people and create an angst that’s unresolvable”.

“However, you do need evidence that there has been serious learning and appreciation and horror over what happened from today’s gestalt.”

Ella Slade, who is IBM’s LGBT+ and global leader and whose pronouns are they and them, says, that transgender employees at IBM who witnessed the apology said they felt “part of something phenomenal.”

They further mentioned, “Lynn made a comment at one point about her joining this IBM event was like returning home, and it’s hard not to get choked up hearing that”.

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