Leadership

Female Google engineer on viral memo: ‘I was painfully unsurprised’

When 24-year-old Google software engineer Amelia Brunner read the now viral anti-diversity memo by James Damore, she was "painfully unsurprised."

Titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," the document asserts that there are "differences in distributions of traits between men and women," which "may in part explain why we don't have 50 percent representation of women in tech and leadership."

Many people in the industry "don't themselves see the ways that unconscious bias affects minorities in the workplace," Brunner, who has been at the company for two years, tells CNBC Make It. "They don't think it happens and then they interpret the concerns raised by affected parties as manipulative cries for attention."

On her team at Google, Brunner says that none of her direct bosses are women and there has been little said among her coworkers concerning the memo. The reason: They aren't phased by it, she says. "It sucks because I hate to say that it's standard," she says, "but it is standard."

Although Brunner admits that she was not shocked by the contents of the memo, one thing did catch her by surprise: the public outcry.

"Despite the fact that women in tech speak out loudly and often on these topics," says Brunner, "people both in and outside of the industry still don't listen, or still write these concerns off as attention-seeking or melodramatic."

"I hope it provides a concrete example of the type of attitudes that women in tech have to interact with on a daily basis to legitimize what we have been saying for years," she says.

59872595
Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Brunner explains that male engineers often ignore the female engineers' competency and assume they were "diversity hires," or employed to boost the percentage of women at the company.

Google responded to the memo, which was first circulated internally, shortly after it was published. Once the document became public, the company fired the engineer who wrote it and sent a company-wide email, which CEO Sundar Pichai posted on Google's blog.

In the post, Pichai writes: "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK."

The company was scheduled to hold an all-hands meeting for employees on Thursday to discuss the memo. It was canceled, however, over concerns for employees' safety after some were threatened online.

Brunner applauds Google's efforts to create a diverse workplace and says that Google has held town halls in the past to discuss these issues. However, she notes there's a stark difference between diversity and inclusion.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Getty Images
Google CEO Sundar Pichai

"You can have diversity in terms of numbers," says Brunner, "but that's different from inclusion and how well you're incorporating minorities into the company."

"A company that's really inclusive and that really values diversity will not block minorities from moving up," she says.

In her time in the tech industry, she says one thing has been obvious: the lack of women in leadership roles.

Tech companies have been slow to hire women and minorities for senior-level positions. In fact, women hold just 14.1 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies, according to a report from the law firm Fenwick & West.

Google's most recent annual diversity report illustrates that about a third of the staff is Asian and only 2 percent are African-American. Women comprise 31 percent of total employees and hold just 20 percent of tech positions and 25 percent of leadership roles.

Despite these glaring figures, Brunner says many companies simply don't care. "Even when statistics are released that definitively show that there is a diversity issue, especially in leadership roles, they blame anything and everything but themselves or the culture that they foster," she says. "So when I read this memo, I thought, 'typical.'"

The lack of female leaders in the tech industry pushed her to become involved with mentorship programs for younger women entering tech. "I want to give to others what I feel that I never had," says Brunner. "I look back and think about how much drastically easier navigating the industry would have been if I had."

Moderator Laura Sydell, from NPR; Sara Clemens, COO at Pandora; Emily White, former COO at Snapchat; and Minnie Ingersoll, co-founder of Shift, speak on a panel for women in tech in San Francisco on Tuesday night.
Lauren Thomas | CNBC
Moderator Laura Sydell, from NPR; Sara Clemens, COO at Pandora; Emily White, former COO at Snapchat; and Minnie Ingersoll, co-founder of Shift, speak on a panel for women in tech in San Francisco on Tuesday night.

At Columbia, where she majored in computer science, Brunner noticed that women stopped pursuing courses in the field as the classes became more advanced. She served as a teaching assistant for two higher-level courses so that her peers would see a woman in a leadership role.

The software engineer fell in love with the tech world after taking a Java class on a whim. Within a few weeks of taking the class, "it just clicked" for her.

"I had never engaged with a subject that made so much intuitive sense to me," says Brunner. "It was compelling, fun, exciting, and I couldn't get enough of it."

She snagged a coveted internship at Time Warner and then at Apple while still in undergrad, before eventually scoring her job at Google.

"We need to reflect and critically look at our beliefs in facing these micro-aggressions." -Amelia Brunner, Google software engineer

After graduating in 2015, she became a teacher for Girls Who Code, a non-profit dedicated to getting young girls interested in science and tech. Brunner says the experience was rewarding: "Even something as simple as 'Oh, this is a person who I feel similar to who is successful in this work environment' can make a huge difference in making younger women feel confident in their professional identities," she says.

Now, she's a member of Google's groups aimed at female employees.

As a millennial in tech, she feels responsible for helping to change the attitude towards underrepresented groups going forward. And that, she says, begins with individual employees: "We need to reflect and critically look at our beliefs in facing these micro-aggressions," says Brunner. "Until that level of depth happens, there won't be change."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook.

See also:

What Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki told her daughter about the Google memo

Female tech CEO on sexist Google memo: It's time to push back and say 'no'

Shocking quotes from the viral Google manifesto