Let’s rewind the clock to about 70 years ago.
England, January of 1952, a man’s house is burgled. When the investigations start, the victim acknowledges that he had been in a relationship with another man, and the latter might have been involved in the crime. Both men are convicted on charges of ‘gross indecency’ under the criminal law of the nation. On pleading guilty, the man is given a choice between imprisonment or early probation on the condition of undergoing chemical castration.
About 10 years later, America, early 1968, a young researcher at IBM, is making major innovations in the field of computer design having already earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Columbia. The researcher is fired from IBM when the senior management learns that she is transgender and plans to undergo gender-transition.
Several decades since then, one can read details about these instances as the two stories above refer to Alan Turing, the mastermind behind cracking the Enigma code during the second world war with the Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ, UK, and Lynn Conway, whose discoveries and innovations supported development in the internet and national defence and led to the establishment of several startups in Silicon Valley respectively.
Turing has left behind a rich legacy with the work he did in mathematics and technology. In 1936, he theorized a computing device which is now known as the ‘universal Turing machine’. Along with a colleague called Gordon Welchman, Turing played a key role in inventing the code-breaking machine known as the Bombe, which helped in decrypting German messages during the war. He also developed the complicated code-breaking system which helped in the deciphering of the Lorenze cyphers at Bletchley Park, which was also used by the Germans for transmitting messages of high confidentiality. The work he did is said to have shortened the war by at least two years, consequently saving thousands of lives. When Turing was arrested in 1952, his status at the GCHQ was revoked simply because he came out as a gay man. England in the 1950s treated homosexuality as illegal, and Turing’s conviction has been justified keeping the context in mind. However, it was not until late in 2009, that the prime minister of the UK delivered a formal, public acknowledgement and apology of the way Turing had been treated. It took another four years before Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon. This year, on 23rd June, Turing is to be featured on the new version of the £50 bank note.
After being fired from IBM in 1968, Conway worked in several prestigious institutions including the Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) as the Assistant Director for Strategic Computing, where she received the Meritorious Achievement Award for her research in machine learning technology. She also worked as a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Michigan and was also the associate dean of the engineering school for 15 years. In 1999, she chose to reveal her transgender identity and her experience at IBM. Despite her public announcement of how IBM treated her because of her identity, the company remained quiet on the issue since as late as August of last year. Jeremy Alicandri, a writer at Forbes magazine wrote an article on LGBTQ diversity in the automotive industry in August, 2020 where he included Lynn Conway’s story. He then reached out to IBM to ask them whether their stance on the issue had changed, so many decades after the incident. It was as a response to this that IBM admitted their responsibility and regret in firing Conway. In the introduction of an online event in October, the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at IBM began with an apology to Conway and acknowledged that she had been removed from IBM. Later, IBM admitted that Conway’s research at the company had improved the performance of computer chips that the company made and awarded her with the IBM Lifetime Achievement Award.
The apologies that came for Turing and Conway were way too late, and nullify the claims that many societies and big companies make of promoting inclusive cultures. Furthermore, these are stories of two people who were in public limelight owing to the contributions they made to society. But inclusion should not be based on merit, and Pride is not meant to simply be a hashtag used while sharing these life stories. These accounts should rather be a reminder of the way things should not be, and serve as cautionary tales for organizations that fail to promote genuine inclusion.
Truly promoting an inclusive culture where anyone, irrespective of their gender, race or identity, can feel safe requires thorough systemic change at all levels of an organization or a society. At this point, Mobius Labs itself is not at a place where it wants to be in these terms, but is attempting to take steps in the right direction. The first step is to remember that in a company experiencing fast growth, we are required to remain vigilant and challenge our values consistently to ensure that we continue building an atmosphere of respect and inclusion.