<br> -- This is the first of a two-part series on Lynn Conway, one of the preeminent women in high tech today. This week, Wired Women tells Conway’s life story, an extraordinary saga by any standard. Next week, the column will present Conway’s take on gender in the high-tech workplace.
It’s as complicated as life gets, but Lynn Conway is an engineer and thinks like one. When it’s all said and done, she says, the litmus test is simple: does it work?
“It’s like building bridges,” she says. “People can say the design stinks, your ideas aren’t any good. But if the bridge stands, it stands. What works, works.”
“People can look at me and say what they want,” she continues. “They’ll judge me and they’ll judge people who are like me, and they can have their weird theories. They can say where I’m going to go when I die. But take a look at my life and tell me if the bridge stands.”
Let me be the one to tell you: It does. Against all odds, the bridge stands.
It’s a work in progress, this bridge she’s building. But half-done, it’s already a monument to the invincibility and optimism of the human spirit. For Lynn Conway — an attractive middle-aged woman recently retired from an illustrious career in engineering and academia, a technology pioneer whose contributions helped reshape the ways computers are conceptualized and designed — lived until two years ago with a secret she was too terrified to share.
Lynn Conway was born a boy.
‘A Terrible Mistake’
The first son of middle-class parents in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Conway was born Robert Sanders (a pseudonym she has adopted to protect her family). His parents, a schoolteacher and a chemical engineer, noticed signs early on that Robert was not a normal male child — signs they worked hard to punish and suppress. Transsexualism was more than a taboo subject in the 1940s; it was unheard of, unthinkable.