Fort Collins Coloradoan
Friday, January 26, 2001

Front Page, below the fold:

Computer pioneer speaks from the heart
about diversity
Transsexual talks at HP, CSU
By Kate Forgach
The Coloradoan
    As a male-to-female transsexual,

V. Richard Haro/The Coloradoan

Distinctive view on diversity: Lynn Conway, a computer scientist who was one of the first transsexuals to have a complete sex-change operation, talked about technology and gender issues at Hewlett-Packard Co., and Colorado State University on Thursday.

Lynn Conway experienced the exact opposite of the glass ceiling.
    Visiting Fort Collins on Thursday to talk to Hewlett-Packard Co. employees and to speak at Colorado State University, Conway discussed her topsy-turvy experiences.
    As a male computer scientist at IBM in the 1960s, Conway was shy, introverted, desperately unhappy - everything that makes the perfect research lab rat.
    Squirreled away in his lab, Conway invented a way for a single central processing unit, or CPU, to perform multiple operations simultaneously without interfering with itself; a system unique for its time.
    But Conway was miserable because he had the gender identity of a woman.
    As Conway worked as a pioneer in the computer field, a very important change was under way.
    "Right at that time, I was undergoing a gender transition," Conway told a group of about 75 people who gathered at Lory Student Center at CSU.
    After many years of searching for help, Conway found a pioneering physician who helped begin medical treatments that would merge his physical presence with his mental and spiritual identity.
    Conway was among the first transsexuals to undergo hormonal and surgical-sex reassignment to have his body completely changed from that of a man into that of a woman.
    Just before he underwent the surgery, however, IBM caught wind of his plans, and he was fired. Conway lost his wife and two children, friends, colleagues and most ties to his past.
    Amid chuckles from the CSU audience, Conway reflected on the belief from IBM officials that she would unleash chaos wherever she went due to her surgery.
    But rather than crashing and burning, as some thought she'd do, Conway flourished.
    With a new sexual identity, Conway started her career again as a contract programmer with no previous experience. But the joy of feeling free within her femininity showed in her work. She soon moved through a series of companies to land a plum job in 1973 at Xerox's new Palo Alto Research Center.
    Conway was experiencing the polar opposite of the glass ceiling. As a newborn woman, she had jets in her high heels. Introversion had been replaced with outgoing confidence.
    "The experience of transition not only solved my gender problem, but, in return, it had rewarded me with any number of personal resources," Conway said. "I was far more mature, more inspired. And when I reached management level, I wasn't afraid to reach out and surround myself with incredibly talented people."
    Before long, she was on the verge of international fame in her field for chip-design methods. She reached that fame, but not before the inevitable whispers began: "Conway used to be a man."
    Conway, now retired, was delighted to learn that no one, much less her employers, really cared.
    "I was lucky - very lucky. And now, Xerox has established guidelines in place to deal with the issues surrounding someone going through transgender transition. So do Apple, Lucent and American Airlines," she said. "There's now suddenly a sense in the transgender community that something is happening - that there's a sense of enlightenment; that transsexuals are being accepted as a matter of diversity."
    Conway said she hoped that by telling her story, more people would come to be accepting of diversity in gender issues.
    It's a message that not only was well received, but also was embraced by some CSU audience members who talked of their own experiences as transgendered individuals or their knowledge of others in similar situations.
    It also brought an important message to others who simply came to hear Conway speak, whether the issue touched them personally or not.
    After Conway's presentation Thursday afternoon at Hewlett Packard, HP President Carly Fiorina commented on her company's attitude toward such diversity.
    "Diversity is not just a feel-good issue; it's a critical business issue," Fiorina said. "Simply put, diversity drives creativity, creativity drives invention, and invention drives profitability and business success."
    "It's hard to see that it really matters if a person wants to be male or female," commented Alan Clements of Fort Collins, who attended the talk at CSU. "The person is what is important."
    As Conway said, "The more comfortable an organization is with diversity - all kinds of diversity - the higher the glass ceiling is going to be for us all."
Coloradoan reporter Jenn Farrell contributed to this report.

-- © Copyright 2000, the Fort Collins Coloradoan


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