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Trans femmes in tech: Part I Women built the industry - so why isn't the industry built for them?

Illustrated pictures of Lynn Conway, Sophie Wilson, Angelica Ross, and Jamie Clayton (aka Nomi Marks) in a collage. The title on top, in all caps, reads Trans Femmes in Tech: Part 1

The history of trans femmes1 in tech

Trans femmes have been instrumental in the tech industry since its inception. To better understand how we got to where we are, tech-wise, here’s some history about how women laid the foundations for there to even be an industry at all!

Brenda Frink, writing for Gender News, describes that in the beginning (i.e. the 50’s and 60’s) computer programming was promoted “a natural career choice for savvy young women” because they expected programming to be a low-skill clerical job, akin to filing, typing, or telephone switching. It turns out, programming actually takes a great deal of skill and women were, and still are, awesome at it!

Two women in the 1950's, connecting circuits on a huge computer. Photo is in black and white


The industry began to boom and it was clear that there was money to be made. It wasn’t long before men introduced intentional barriers to leave their women predecessors/counterparts in the dust, and masculinized the industry to the max by:

  • running ads connecting women staffers with error/inefficiency;
  • creating professional associations that didn’t hire women;
  • instituting “hiring tests” that favoured men formally educated in maths; and,
  • using personality tests that favoured masculinized responses, such as disliking “activities involving close personal interaction”.

But women and femmes, being the bad-asses they are, prevailed through it all, and continued to shape the industry as we know it. This article is going to focus on the experience of trans women, but check out these cis women (and also this one) who’ve also made foundational contributions to the world of tech.

Count your trans-invented technological blessings

If you are on the internet right now (which you obviously are), on a computer or on your phone, you have a bunch of trans women to thank for that. Using some techie acronyms, allow me to introduce you to a couple of influential trans women in tech you should definitely know about:

Lynn Conway

A line drawing of Lynn Conway with and illustrated green and blue circuit board in the background.

Lynn Conway – aka the reason your computer doesn’t take up your entire room. Illustration by Sara Williamson and Jesse Blanchie.

Lynn Conway began her career in the early 60’s at IBM (where her position was terminated when she began her transition). While at IBM, she enabled the creation of the first superscalar computer, and in the early 70’s, she was recruited by Xerox PARC and became a pioneer of microelectronic chip design. Many thousands of engineers and designers learned their craft from Lynn’s work as a Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, and through her co-authored book, “An Introduction to VLSI,” which have impacted chip design and modern computing on a global scale.

As a side note, the University of Victoria will be honouring Lynn with an honorary Doctorate in Engineering on November 9th, 2016 at 10 am. She will also be giving a couple of public lectures, which I’ll link to once the details are released!

Sophie Wilson

A line drawing of Sophie Wilson with and illustrated green and blue circuit board in the background.

Sophie Wilson – aka the reason you have handheld electronics that do things quickly. Illustration by Sara Williamson and Jesse Blanchie.

In the late 80’s, Sophie Wilson began her career at Acorn Computers Ltd. Wilson later designed the instruction set of the ARM processor, which is now used in over 95% of 21st-century smart phones. I’ll let her describe a little more about her history (and ARM) below:

The reality for trans femmes in tech

Trans people (and particularly trans women, because misogyny) in every industry experience very high levels of selection bias, and the tech industry is no exception. In fact, while tech has incredible potential to be on the leading edge of everything, it is lagging behind when it comes to workplace safety for people who are not cisgender white guys.

Many trans feminine people in tech experience violence at work daily – from verbal microagressions, to sexual harassment, to full-on erasure when 13-28% of trans folks are fired without cause after coming out [.pdf].

This Op-Ed piece by Jessica Lachenal delivers a needed wake up call to the tech industry about the reality of being trans in tech:

I feel like I have to compromise my identity in order to be in this boys’ club of an industry…[T]here is an immense pressure to believe that problems [that affect trans people] don’t matter, shouldn’t be discussed, or don’t exist at all. If we don’t fit into “the culture” in tech, we get iced out silently and forcefully. I thought I was done lying to myself and hiding who I was when I transitioned. I never in a million years thought I’d be forced back into a closet by people who were supposed to understand, people who work in an industry that is ostensibly progressive and forward-thinking.

If one thing is certain, it’s that employers need to tune in to what their trans employees are experiencing, and take their lead in creating a future that doesn’t replicate the harms of the past.
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All art created by Sara Williamson and Jesse Blanchie.

  1. In this article, I somewhat interchangeably use the terms “trans femme/s” and “trans woman/women.” I’ve used the term trans femme so as to include non-binary AMAB people who don’t identify as women, but I also acknowledge the the term “trans femme” may not feel accurate for trans women or non-binary AMAB people who don’t express/present in feminine ways. The intent is to use terms that describe people who experience transmisogyny, regardless of how they identify and present. I’m open to hearing about words/phrases that feel good for describing more ways of being for trans women/trans femmes/non-binary AMAB folx – be in touch if you have some ideas on that!

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