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Leadership and the Value of Exceptional Allies

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This week I am continuing my series on leadership with an example of quiet leadership deep within a massive global professional community.

Today is a momentous day for equality in the world of nerds, geeks and hackers. Given that many of us have, to some degree, become technologically proficient during the new industrial revolution, this is of great importance to all of us. Today, the IEEE -- the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world's largest professional body of engineers, which has more than 425,000 members in over 160 countries, including both academia and industry -- is publishing its new Code of Ethics. And that Code, known within the profession as much as a code of honor as one of ethics, is, for the first time, LGBT-inclusive.

The campaign to make this happen was spearheaded and coordinated by two trans women: Lynn Conway, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Emerita, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and a Life Fellow of the IEEE, and Leandra Vicci, lecturer and Director of the Applied Engineering Laboratory in the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Life Senior Member of the IEEE. Last September Lynn and Leandra brought an oversight to the attention of the Institute's Board of Directors, as they noted that the planned change to the Code of Ethics, to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy, was exclusive of gender identity and expression.

By Oct. 12, many prominent IEEE thought leaders had co-signed a letter requesting trans inclusion. These thought leaders were led by UNC's Dr. Fred Brooks, the father of the IBM System/360, and included the president of Stanford University, the presidents emeriti of M.I.T. and CalTech, numerous members of the National Academies of Engineering and Science, and many other widely respected IEEE Fellows.

In alphabetical order:

Eleanor Baum
Ruzena Bazcsy
Grady Booch
Gaetano Borriello
Frederick Brooks, Jr.
Randal E. Bryant
Bob Colwell
Thomas Conte
Fernando Corbato
Hugo De Man
Robert W. Dutton
Deborah Estrin
Thomas E. Everhart
Dave Farber
Henry Fuchs
Elsa Garmire
James F. Gibbons
Paul E. Gray
John L. Hennessy
David A. Hodges
Mark Horowitz
Mary Ann Horton
Chuck House
Judy L. Hoyt
Mary Jane Irwin
Thomas Kailath
Linda P.B. Katehi
Benjamin Kuipers
Ed Lazowska
Michael Lightner
Richard F. Lyon
Steven Molnar
Trevor Mudge
Alice C. Parker
Irene C. Peden
Paul Penfield, Jr.
John Poulton
Ken Shepard
William F. Slack
Gerald J. Sussman
Dennis Sylvester
Russell M. Taylor II
Neil Weste
Timothy A. Wilson
Marilyn C. Wolf
Carl Van Wormer
William Wulf

The letter was forwarded to the Board of Directors for the November meeting and was approved by a greater-than-two-thirds majority. That vote, and the resultant addition to the Code of Ethics of full LGBT inclusion, is being announced today, Jan. 8, 2014.

So what does this mean? It means that hundreds of thousands of engineers worldwide -- including in Russia, Uganda and over 60 other nations where being gay or trans is considered a crime -- are now honor bound to treat their colleagues with respect. It means inclusion and acceptance will bubble up from this professional society to impact the larger local cultures, as it did recently in the U.S. when multiple professional medical organizations -- including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, to name a few -- changed their policies and pushed the American Psychiatric Association to remove transgender status from being considered a mental illness.

It exemplifies the power of being alert to one's personal and professional surroundings so as to be aware that change is needed and, when the moment arrives, that it is finally possible to create that change. It shows the value of having a close colleague in whom one can confide and trust to actually get the work done. It shows the power of "showing up," of asking one's colleagues for their support of your humanity, both in an official capacity as well as in your daily interactions. It shows the wellspring of support that exists even in places where you might least expect it. It shows how much the work of so many others has already changed the culture sufficiently that progress like this is not only possible but increasingly probable.

I first wrote about my friend, Lynn Conway, last April. You have her to thank if you're reading this on a smartphone, tablet or a laptop, as she was the woman most responsible for creating the VLSI (very-large-scale integrated) circuit revolution in Xerox PARC back in the '70s. Because she was a woman, and transgender, she was rendered invisible by the overwhelmingly male culture of the electrical engineering world of that day. That culture, though, has changed radically, as is evident in so many startups in Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. Supporting my son in his startup endeavors, I've personally witnessed the remarkable diversity of development teams and their financial backers. Sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity are non-issues to so many of the millennials and their predecessors who are building the new world economy. We are very fortunate that Lynn and her colleagues are uncovering themselves to play increasingly important roles in creating a far more accepting and productive culture for the future. That two trans women found so many straight, cisgender colleagues willing to formally support them in such a short time, and the fact that the board of this global powerhouse responded so quickly is very much worth celebrating today.