The Impact of Lynn Conway, a Transgender Woman, on Data Literacy Today.

I’ve been talking about data literacy all wrong. In nearly all the talks I give, I typically dive into the history of computers and how we got here. I usually talk about Gordon Moore, Intel history, and microchips’ commercialization. Specific to data literacy, how computing power has gotten smaller and faster over time. Enter high educational barriers, lack of employer enablement on data skills, et voila – data literacy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The true history of why we are here is because of intersectionality – when a transgender woman in tech overcame immense barriers to propel technology forward, often to her own detriment.

I’d like to introduce you to Lynn Conway.

First, let’s level set. I have no idea how to build a computer or how all the different components work together, but google does a fair job of informing me. What I do know is that computers have changed our world. According to ASML:

A microchip (also called a chip, a computer chip, an integrated circuit or IC) is a set of electronic circuits on a small flat piece of silicon. On the chip, transistors act as miniature electrical switches that can turn a current on or off. The pattern of tiny switches is created on the silicon wafer by adding and removing materials to form a multilayered latticework of interconnected shapes.

ASML on Microchip Basics,

Chips power multiple things in computers, from memory to CPUs, to so many other functions that I cannot do justice by explaining. I highly suggest you google everything a microchip does – our world runs on microchips. You are using a microchip to read this post now, no matter the device you are on. They power everything from gaming, to smartphones, to computers, to so much more; it’s mind-blowing.

The history of the chip, though, is typically accredited to three individuals.

So many others contributed to the microchip or integrated circuit chip that it’s challenging to trace everyone, and this writer admits to falling down rabbit holes to find out more. Apparently, it’s a story of intrigue and betrayal, with a group called “The Traitorous Eight.” Dah dum dum. Needless to say, this is where our story begins, and so apparently does Silicon Valley. Here we are today, trying to uncover the hidden history of women in tech.

From Wikipedia, The Traitorous Eight Men: From left to right: Gordon MooreC. Sheldon RobertsEugene KleinerRobert NoyceVictor GrinichJulius BlankJean Hoerni, and Jay Last (1960)

Just to shake things up a bit, let’s talk about what happened after these men invented the microchip, shall we? It’s all good that we talk about how something started, and as the kids’ say, “how it started vs. how it’s going.”. This is similar to the phrase “standing on the shoulder of giants, ” which puts well-known individuals on pedestals. In this case, the Traitorous Eight are the shoulders on whom we attribute the history of microchips. Typically, many would say Lynn was standing on the shoulders of giants; I would argue these men are standing on Lynn’s shoulders. Their contributions are known because of what she accomplished.

Photo by Pixabay on

It started with the Traitorous Eight creating the microchip and only continued because of Lynn Conway. First, let’s acknowledge a universal truth; knowing the actual contribution of women to history, science, and technology is challenging. Women have been erased from many of their contributions and were not given access to higher education institutions like their male counterparts. Lynn, assigned male at birth, was able to attend MIT during a time that is documented as being hostile toward women. Lynn dedicated herself to education in a world that wouldn’t allow her to express her true gender identity.

In the 60s, Lynn was hired by IBM, and her accomplishments were well known. Much of what she accomplished was removed in 1968 when Lynn informed IBM about her intent to transition; IBM apologized 2 years ago in 2020. Not only did Lynn lose custody of her children, but all of her accomplishments, and education, were no longer acknowledged. After her transition, Lynn was on the down low, with a new name and a new career. In 1973 Lynn ended up at Xerox leading a team of engineers working on microchips.

When in PARC, Conway founded the “multiproject wafers” (MPW). This new technology made it possible to pack multiple circuit designs from various sources into one single chip. Her new invention increased production and decreased costs. She co-authored Introduction to VLSI Systems, a groundbreaking work that would soon become a standard textbook in chip design, used in nearly 120 universities by 1983.

Alright, so why is this a big deal? Let’s go back to why I talk about Gordon Moore, specifically Moore’s Law.

So often, we talk about Intel when it comes to Microchips, and in Data Literacy, we don’t talk about the WHY enough and how microchips contributed to where we are. Lynn is the reason microchips are as efficient as they are, yet all we hear about is Moore and the other inventors. Our technology rate of change is exponential because of contributions like Lynns. None of the articles about microchips mentioned Lynn, and I had to actively search for Lynn’s name.

Part of my role in data literacy is to understand why it exists. It’s difficult sometimes because it means acknowledging systemic issues. Many are high barriers to access to education or outdated education. Data literacy discussions should recognize education as a position of privilege. Privilege is also being seen when others, who should, are not. To learn about Lynn this weekend, my heart knew I needed to talk about her and discuss her pioneering role in technology. She is integral to the data literacy discussion, and not because it’s Pride month. She deserves acknowledgment every day, every month, every year.

I hope you can join me in bringing her name into the discussion, where so many left her behind. Being a data literacy advocate means being an advocate and an ally, and we here at Be Data Lit will always choose to be an ally.

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