Transgender activist Rhonda Williams (A.S. ’68) addresses VCU Engineering’s Identity and Culture reception

Dean Boyan and Rhonda Williams
From left: Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., and Rhonda Williams.

At VCU Engineering’s Identity and Culture reception, keynote speaker VCU alumna Rhonda Williams (A.S.’68) began her remarks with a look back at technology game-changers who didn’t fit the traditional engineering mold.

These included Grace Hopper, the computer scientist who became “the mother of advanced programming” when most women were homemakers and Alan Turing, the British mathematician and code-breaker imprisoned for homosexuality in the 1950s.

Tech innovators who might not “look like engineers” are a group Williams knows well. She’s one of them.

Williams earned her degree in engineering technology the year before the Richmond Professional Institute became VCU. She became a software entrepreneur who designed the first PC-based tax preparation and human resources system.

“Now let’s talk about ‘the elephant at the podium,’” Williams said with a laugh as she put up a slide of her engineering technology graduating class. “There are two women in this picture,” she said. “And neither of them is me.”

Williams said she knew since childhood that she was different (transgender, as it is known now), even though she didn’t have a word for it. She was raised by accepting grandparents, but learned early on that prejudice existed. Her experience as a transgender person, she said, has given her an expanded view of gender in engineering and technology.

“If there's anyone in this room who thinks male privilege doesn't exist, let me tell you: It does,” she said. Williams recounted being hired for every engineering job she interviewed for as a man. When she presented as a woman, however, it took 43 interviews to get a job offer. “The skills were the same, but the presentation was different. If I ever write my memoir, it will be called ‘Going through the glass ceiling, the opposite way,’” she added.

Today Williams is a technology consultant and inclusion activist whose blog “Rhonda’s Escape” urges readers to “get out there, be who you are, be genuine and, most of all, be visible.” She told the audience this is especially for people with stigmatized identities.

“I spent many years trying to deny that I was transgender. I'm glad I put that behind me now. It's very easy to hate a concept, but it’s much harder to hate a person,” she said.

“So that’s why I want you to go out into the world to create things that no one has thought up, design technologies that will make the world different, and better. And if you are different, let people see who you are. Let them know that that gender-nonconforming engineer is their neighbor, their relative and their best friends’ child. It’s never too late, so get out there and do something — and be proud of yourself.”