IBM finally apologized for 1968 firing of noted transgender scientist

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This is so beautiful, and I hope it’ll accompany real, structural change and support on IBM’s part <3


Hi, @AndreaJames, did Lynn Conway feel that this was more than a cynical move on the part of the corporate person of IBM?


Cynical or not, isn’t recognition of past mistakes and apologizing for them a step in the right direction? We can’t get people and corporations to even admit to wrong doing half the time, usually hand waved as “it was a different time”, etc.


Thank you for showing us not everything in the world is a backwards Faustian nightmare.

IBM has a lot more to answer for with what they did with the Nazis but this is a nice start.


The HR person is simply reflecting the company’s policy. It does not have much to do with justice or ethics. It’s just about money.

Because we live in a would dominated by corporations, getting them to a point where it is good business to hire trans people has always been a key goal of mine. I have likened my activism to feminists who made inroads into corporate America in the 1970s.

As we say in Hollywood, it’s not called show politics, It’s show business. Same is true at IBM. In 1968 it probably made good business sense to fire a promising employee to avoid riling their conservative clients.

In time, tech companies realized that it made good business sense to hire trans people. Trans people index WAY higher in fields involving languages (music, translation, programming, etc.). We also fought to make it a bad business decision to fire trans people, though the employment laws enacted to protect trans people are under serious threat.

It’s clear to any large tech company that it is worth having trans employees. Most now cover trans health services and have affinity groups. Whether it is cynical or not does not matter to me or Lynn. Equality must be reached by any means necessary, and that includes dealing with our corporate overlords.


Good points. Thank you for the reply. That’s a positive way of looking at the situation, that my Trump-battered brain was unable to see.


I hope they wrote her a check, I’m didn’t see anything related to that. To right the wrong, I really think they need to shake lose of some money.


It does somewhat suck that this move is likely more motivated by money than by a real change of heart, but i’m not naive and recognize that is usually the mechanism for these kinds of changes when it comes to progressive issues. However it is that companies and governments get there it is still progress, make it impossible for them to exclude people despite their unwillingness to make changes on their own.


I doubt that it’s possible to really assess the impact that Ms Conway has had in tech for trans acceptance. I do know that it’s enormous. Speaking as a 68yo male/cis/het semiconductor engineer, I practically grew up in the field with “Mead-Conway” as the foundational methodology. Finding out later that she was female reinforced my rather uninvolved “of course women can …[1]” bias; finding out years later that she was trans just blended in. I very much doubt that I’m alone in having been nudged that way.

Here we are decades later. On my return (for grins this time) to university for a few added degrees in math and physics, I was delighted to see how utterly matter of fact my fellow students were with their trans fellows. Maybe we are making progress, however much it sometimes seems we aren’t.

[1] My daughter’s third grade teacher, in one of the “what will you do when you grow up” sessions popular at that point, responded to her with the declaration “you can’t be an engineer, you’re a girl.” It’s good that I didn’t find out for years, because that was as close as I’ve ever come to murderous rage.


So they should not have apologies after all?

It’s great that they are officially acknowledging their historic role in the oppression of trans people, but it’s important to contextualize the ways in which it is currently beneficial to a corporation to get a lot of free PR and brand burnishing by doing so.


Anything that gets Lynn Conway’s story in the popular press is a plus IMHO. She was a foundational mind in the developing world of computer architecture, AND she had to work her way up to it TWICE, effectively having to start an entirely new identity after her transition. Considering the quantity of academics/etc who trade on the One Cool Thing they did in their 20’s/30’s for the rest of their life, she should be the archetype of pushing the boundaries of technology.


Yes, and she went on to do a lot of remarkable foundational work in AI, much of which is still classified. She has spent much of the last decade getting her papers in order, and I believe that history will treat her far better than she has been treated in her lifetime. Just like pretty much any trans person.


This is very cool. I had no idea!


This is an important point. You can never truly know how sincere an apology is, but it still has a lot of value even if it is just a PR stunt. It boosts the signal that this is something that we all should care about, and it is taking a position on the issue. I mean, we all know all those companies who tripped over themselves to shout Black Lives Matter on Twitter were only doing it as a marketing tool, but the fact that they are saying social justice has market value normalizes the progressive side of these issues. That matters! The way you win culture wars is not by convincing the other side, but by marginalizing their fringe views. Once you do that, all the fence-sitters quietly change their minds.


Good point you make here. Aside from your explanation of winning culture wars with these gestures, it also made me think that if you were currently getting the squeeze put on you at work immediately post transition, as so often happens, the company doing a big public apology for past discriminatory push outs/firings could help those pushing you out lose traction.


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