It was in August, 1968 that Lynn Conway was fired from IBM for reasons that are today illegal, but it wasn’t until October 2020 that an apology was made by IBM’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources.
Conway joined IBM Research in 1964. IBM was, at this time, the 7th largest corporation in the world and Conway was involved in making major innovations in computer design. According to Forbes, her research “led to successful startups in Silicon Valley, supported national defense, and powered the internet.”
Harry Benjamin was a doctor in Manhattan who was, in 1967 when Conway learned of him, performing gender transition work that was pioneering. Conway began to seek the help of Dr Benjamin to begin her transition.
According to Forbes, Conway’s immediate family and the divisional management team at IBM were accepting and supportive of the decision. It is believed that after hearing about Conway’s plans to transition, then CEO T.J. Watson Jr and IBM management made the decision to fire Conway.
After completing her transition and being fired from IBM, Conway began working as a woman, with a new identity, in 1969. In 1973 she eventually began working for the soon to be well-known Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (1973). While researching enhanced methods for computer chip design at PARC, Conway also began co-authoring a book on these methods with Caltech professor Carver Mead in 1977.
After this, Conway became a prominent voice for transgender people around the world. She is an activist for transgender people and regularly shares insights from her own story, including being fired from IBM. In 2014, Conway was named as one of the most influential LGBTQI figures in American culture by Time Magazine.
IBM shied away from the topic of Conway’s firing until 2020. In early October of 2020, all IBM employees were invited to attend a virtual event entitled Tech Trailblazer and Transgender Pioneer Lynn Conway In Conversation With Diane Gherson. Gherson was IBM’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources. According to Forbes, the event began with a heartfelt apology from Gherson for Conway’s firing. Conway, according to Forbes, said “I struggled to hold back tears” in response to the apology. Conway was also awarded the IBM Lifetime Achievement Award.
Forbes reported that in response to the event, Conway stated that “instead of just being a resolution of what had happened in 1968, it became a heartfelt group celebration of how far we’ve all come since then.”