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Lynn Conway
Lynn Conway says she's no gender pundit, but she does have a unique perspective on gender in the high-tech workplace, where she has made solid contributions as both a man and a woman. (Lynn Conway)
High-Tech Gender Bending
Computer Scientist Lynn Conway Debunks Gender Gap Myths

By Dianne Lynch

Special to

This is the second of a two-part series on Lynn Conway, one of the nation’s outstanding women in high tech, a professor emerita and former associate dean at the University of Michigan, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Born Robert Sanders (a pseudonym), Conway underwent gender transition surgery in the ’60s and has been living as a woman for the past 33 years.
     Lynn Conway says she’s no gender pundit, and she reminds me — repeatedly — not to portray her as one. OK, so she has a unique perspective on gender in the high-tech workplace. And yes, she’s been sensitized to the biological, social and emotional characteristics that distinguish male from female.


    But Conway is a computer scientist who rejects easy answers, an engineer who makes explicit distinctions between knowing, surmising and just plain thinking out loud. And she wants it clear that she’s doing a bit of all three as she talks about gender and computing: these are observations she’s making here, not pronouncements.
     That said, Conway’s a woman of strong opinions and rapid-fire reasoning skills. She’s quick but thorough, punctuating long soliloquies with short check-ins: “See what I mean?” “Understand where I’m going with this?” And through it all, through hours of thoughtful, open-ended and far-reaching discussion, Conway laughs often and easily — a laugh she directs, in turns, at herself, at life’s ironies, and at the differences between the sexes.
     “All this stuff about girls not going into high tech because they’re not good at math and science?” she says. “That’s nonsense.”

Creativity: The Mother of Invention
The math and science thresholds aren’t all that high, and besides, getting over them is only the beginning. “What makes or breaks a career isn’t math and science, it’s the ability to create and innovate,” she says. “And guys have no lock on that. Not even close.”
     In fact, she suggests, women tend to be more comfortable with the creative give-and-take from which great ideas come. Unfortunately, most don’t realize that high tech has as much to do with collaboration as with calculus.
     “There are lots of women who would love the work, but first they have to go to college and study engineering and computer science,” she says. “And there is nothing — nothing — about that experience that remotely suggests what a creative, exciting, dynamic profession it is. So women don’t choose it.
     “It’s obvious why women aren’t going into engineering,” she says. “It’s not that it’s too difficult — it’s not. It’s the culture of higher ed. And that really galls me.”

That Nerdy Guy World
Women who do earn engineering degrees should be more savvy about the firms they join, Conway says. Most companies don’t get it yet, but the old paradigm is on its way out. “If you look around and all you see are a bunch of white nerdy guys, get out of there,” she says. “That’s not where great work is going to happen.”
     New ideas are most likely to emerge from a mix of wildly divergent points of view, Conway says. And that means the IT environment should be a place where difference is not tolerated but celebrated.
     “Really hot, sharp, creative people want to be in a place that appreciates diversity,” she says. Women should use a work site’s attitudes towards all kinds of “otherness” as a marker for its degree of gender equity.
     “Many workplaces may seem to have gotten over their discomfort about having women around, but if you notice their reactions to people who are gender variant — slightly feminine guys or slightly butch gals, for example — that’s a marker for how welcoming they truly are.
     “The more comfortable an organization is with diversity — all kinds of diversity — the higher the glass ceiling is going to be.”

‘A Male Information-Technology Show’
Conway points to the work of women like Dr. Anita Borg, director of the Institute for Women and Technology at Xerox Parc, whose research helps women imagine, design, and help create technologies that reflect their needs and sensibilities.
     “What Anita has managed to do is show, not as speculation but as a reality, that there are domains of technology that guys aren’t going to think about,” she says.
     Guys didn’t think about collaboration when they created the personal computer decades ago. “It was such a huge improvement over what had gone before,” Conway says, “but it came out of a certain ideology — a male ideology.
     “All of your interactions with a PC have that kind of highly constrained, turf-bound, control-bound male feel to them,” she says. “It’s like a male information-technology show.”

Wrapping Herself in Tech
The female version would have been very different. “You’d all be working together on a big whiteboard, sharing your ideas, and yacking away,” she says. “That’s a more female thing, wrapping yourself and your friends in the technology.”
     Broadband and wireless are about to transform everything yet again. And technology is about to become more collaborative, more sensitive, more interactive, and more, well, feminine.
     “We’re entering the decade in which women will put their stamp on technology,” Conway predicts. “It’ll have to do with collaboration, teaming, augmenting in very strong ways our social connectivities, feeling each other’s presence in the world.
     “It’s time,” she says. “And it’s all sitting there, waiting for us. It really is.”

A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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“It's obvious why women aren't going into engineering. It's not that it's too difficult -- it's not. It's the culture of higher ed. And that really galls me.”
Lynn Conway, computer engineer


“What Anita [Borg] has managed to do is show, not as speculation but as a reality, that there are domains of technology that guys aren't going to think about.”
Lynn Conway, computer engineer


Write Dianne Lynch


Read past Wired Women

“What makes or breaks a career isn't math and science, it's the ability to create and innovate.”
Lynn Conway, computer engineer