Celebrating LGBT scientists: Audrey Tang

Image credit: Audrey Tang, LinkedIn

Audrey Tang is a Taiwanese software developer, and a transgender woman. In 2016 she was invited into the executive cabinet of the Taiwan government as a minister without portfolio, the youngest in Taiwanese history to do so at only 35 years old, and the first transgender member of the cabinet. Tang quickly took office as the first ‘Digital Minister’, managing and communicating information with the public digitally. She is a symbol of two of Taiwan’s most important values: a transparent government and a liberal society.

As a teenager in 1996, Tang realised that all the textbooks in school were outdated. She quit school to become autodidactic and has been an activist for autodidactism since. Just after leaving school at 16 years old, Tang founded her first company: a search engine for lyrics of Chinese-language songs. It was also around this time that she started questioning her gender identity. She would introduce herself as a man to some people on the internet, and as a female to others. Tang decided to transition to female at the age of 25, changing her name to the more gender ambiguous Feng, or “Audrey” in English. She had an operation to remove her beard and inject Botox into her cheeks, but she did not undergo a gender reassignment surgery. Her gender is listed in the roster of ministers as “none”.

Before joining the government, Tang had a fruitful career as a programmer, particularly dedicated to contributing to free software. Tang is a prominent member of groups working on the Haskell and Perl programming languages and has contributed to the designs of systems such as Kwiki, Windows RT and Slash. She has worked for prominent companies, including Apple, with whom she helped to develop Siri. Apple paid her at the rate of 1 bitcoin per hour, the equivalent of around ¥50,000 when Audrey joined Apple in 2014, and a whopping ¥900,000 in April 2020. Tang has also worked for Wikimedia Foundation in their Visual Editor Team; Oxford University Press, working on digital dictionaries with the Global Language Solutions team; and a Spanish company called Medialab-Prado as a Mentor-in-Telepresence. Here she worked on a deliberation process in virtual reality with the Collective Intelligence for Democracy workshop, to enter architects’ visions and interact with them in real time, making it enjoyable to participate — like watching and acting in a 3D IMAX movie. 

Tang was persuaded to take up the post of Taiwan’s Digital Minister when she was 33 years old and is allowed to work from home for two days of the week. On Wednesdays, Tang opens her office to the public. As the first Digital Minister, Tang’s workspace is radically transparent. Anyone with a proposal for the government, irrespective of age or occupation, can make an appointment to discuss it as long as they are willing to record their conversation and have it available to the public. All transcripts of the meetings are available online. This allows people to see not only how policies are made, but also why – the context of policy making. This radical transparency also holds the government to account, not just the citizens, with the government making its decision making processes and outcomes open to the public.

Tang has ensured that everyone in Taiwan has access to broadband connection which is at least 10 MB/s, based on the belief that broadband is a human right for all citizens. It costs only about twenty euros per month, and Tang takes it upon herself personally to ensure everyone in Taiwan has an internet connection. Meetings anywhere in the country take place through a high-speed two-way video conference which allows the government to reach remote communities. 

The map provided by text to citizens on February 7 2020. Image credit: Google Maps

Most recently, she has been contributing to the pandemic efforts in Taiwan by developing an app that allows people to see face mask inventory levels at a glance in the nearby area, providing relief to the people who are looking for masks and also allowing fine control of supply and demand curve. Tang’s ministry has also released an app which provides real-time citywide alerts of risky locations visited by the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers in Taiwan.

Written by Aditi Jain and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Aditi’s thoughts… Audrey Tang is one of the most interesting scientists I have come across. She is a pioneering scientist who breaks glass ceilings. 

Her life story highlights a few important ideas to ponder, having built a successful career without formal education. Is the way science is taught at universities helpful? Are lectures the best way to disseminate information for students to absorb? Are labs worth much if most students don’t get a second chance to improve their lab results or their lab reports? Is going to university even worth it? Audrey Tang reminds us that even though we all go to uni, our education is ultimately in our hands – how we acquire it and what we do with it.

The idea of inclusivity is another idea that comes to mind – how accessible is education in remote areas? How physically accessible are labs for everyone – people with physical impairments/impediments or those who need support animals with them? Science takes a lot for granted and it’s a good time to think about how we allow everyone to pursue their own educational path and facilitate access to resources to anyone that needs them. The scientific field tends to be stuck in its old beliefs and actions, not leaving much space for people who want to break out of the norm. Systematic change needs to take place to allow everyone to use their individuality as a scientist, but also as a human, to take science, and hopefully, humanity, forward.

Find me on… LinkedIn @Aditi Jain

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