Steffi Bryson Profile

Steffi Bryson (California & St. Catherine’s 2012) graduated from California State University – Long Beach with a BA in International Studies and German Studies. She recently completed the MPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford and is now located in San Francisco, California, working as a Policy Analyst for Google. During her time at Oxford, she served as Women’s Vice-Captain of the St. Catherine’s College Boat Club.

Rhodes Project: What does your work at Google involve?

Steffi Bryson: I work on Google’s central policy team in Mountain View. I just started working there so it’s hard for me to have something definitive to say, but my work primarily focuses on strategic planning for privacy issues. I work across different product teams, launches and issue areas to shape the direction of privacy at Google. I also work on geopolitical issues – issues that have to do with Google Maps, Google Earth and the depiction of borders and disputed zones.

Rhodes Project: How did rowing for your college team change your Oxford experience? Had you rowed previously?

Steffi Bryson: The 10 months between when I was elected as a Rhodes Scholar but before I arrived in Oxford were challenging. People started treating me very differently. When I arrived in Oxford, I felt this pressure to behave as if I was just innately smart and that my time at Oxford wasn’t intended for me to learn and grow, but rather to showcase how smart I already was. I spent much of my academic time at Oxford floundering – and feeling somewhat incompetent – and in talking to other scholars I know this isn’t a unique experience. My academic work was loose, ill-defined and somewhat unsatisfying. I also learned very quickly that a lot of that had to do with lack of structure and routine – I was very used to full class schedules and I took for granted how important that structure was to my life.

Rowing at Oxford gave me a sense of structure and discipline that I desperately missed. The early morning practices were hard work – it gave me a reason to wake up before the sun came up. Rowing gave me something on which I could focus my energy.

It taught me to have a kind of humble confidence exactly at a moment when I needed it most. I joined in my second week of Oxford and had barely been in a boat like that before. Every day I learned something new, and it was a simple reminder that with a little dedication and practice there’s always room to learn and improve.

Rhodes Project: This year is the first year women are rowing in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the Thames tideway alongside the men. What does that mean to you?

Steffi Bryson: The obvious answer is equality: it’s important that women and men are treated equally in the same sports. There’s also practical aspect: such a venue gives important attention to women rowers since there are all of the ‘accidental spectators’. The women rowers will get a lot of attention because of that spillover effect, although that’s not to say that women rowers only deserve accidental spectators. It is a valuable by-product.

It’s also an acknowledgement that women can row the same stretch of the Thames – they don’t need to be on a different or shorter course. Thinking about it also makes me angry; the change is more than overdue and it’s something we should be able to take for granted. One day I want the commentary to be, “Hey, do you remember when women didn’t row on the tideway on the same day and course as the men?”  I mean it’s really quite ridiculous, but it’s a symptom of how Oxbridge is such a traditional institution. 

Rhodes Project: What are your favourite memories of Oxford?

Steffi Bryson: Any Trinity term in Oxford is the best moment and place in time. It’s like a magical wonderland – I loved all of it. My heart is too full of Oxford to pick just one memory. I did enjoy the pomp and circumstance and the ‘tradition for tradition’s sake’ – everything from black tie dinners to second desserts to speaking Latin at graduation.

It really sank in when I finished my exams. Oxford was a unique and challenging experience, and I definitely appreciate having done it.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any reflections on how high-achieving women are portrayed in the media, based on your experience after your Rhodes election?

Steffi Bryson: I was mentioned occasionally as a “surfer girl”, and I think there’s some interesting commentary there. The assumption is that a surfer girl is a girl, not a woman, and someone who isn’t taken seriously and can’t be high achieving. I am really proud of my past – I experienced some success in surfing and wanted that to be part of my future. I also nearly dropped out of high school, and the media reports about that are true.

That past was crucial to me becoming the person I am today. I learned a lot in the transition from athletics to academics, and it’s important to me that women’s athletic success is highlighted too – especially in a very male-dominated sport like surfing. If I had continued surfing at that level I hope that I would have worked just as hard and been just as proud of my accomplishments. It demonstrates the importance of pursuing your passions, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to focus on multiple passions in my life already.

I always felt very in control of my story in the media, because it’s true and I’m not ashamed. When you feel comfortable with such a story, it’s hard for it to be taken out of context.

Rhodes Project: What do you think the next 10 years of your life will look like, professionally and personally?

Steffi Bryson: First of all, I have to say – my favourite comedian is Mitch Hedberg and he has a great joke where he describes a similar job interview question (“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”) and his response is: “Celebrating the 5 year anniversary of you asking me that question”.

For me right now, 10 years seems like an enormous amount of time. My life has changed so much in the past 10 years. I care a lot about being successful, working hard and being someone that women and girls can look up to as doing something positive in my field. Six months ago I never would have guessed that I would be working on privacy issues at the world’s largest technology company.

I’ve always wanted to work in public service. After the Edward Snowden revelations I deeply questioned my assumption that working in the public sector was the best way to protect citizens. I realized that working within a tech company also offers opportunities to have a significant positive impact in terms of protecting privacy. But I’d eventually like to return to public service.

Rhodes Project: Your research has focused on Internet governance and Internet privacy in a global context. Are there any issues that are particularly top-of-mind for you at the moment?

Steffi Bryson: My research focused on the politics and diplomacy of privacy and transatlantic data protection negotiations. The substance was less prominent in my writing than the tactics of negotiating international agreements. Since joining Google I’ve realized that it’s not just about government meetings or complying with laws. For Google it’s much more about building privacy into products and figuring out what privacy looks like in practice, rather than in theory.

I’m also very passionate about surveillance reform and data protection regulation. I’m really interested in how we can practically protect privacy and how theories about privacy protecting technologies have changed and, often, been disproved. We as a society are constantly learning how to build ways to use the Internet that still protects individual privacy – it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum trade-off. And I’m really excited to be working in that area.

Rhodes Project: What motivated your interest in that field?

Steffi Bryson: My Oxford research was directly motivated by the politics of privacy that I saw while I interned with the U.S. State Department in Brussels at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in 2010. I worked in the office of the ambassador and helped him prepare for meetings with members of the European Parliament on data protection issues. I was interested in two aspects of this – the first being that data protection and privacy are political issues, and the second that the European Parliament could have some influence on the issue. I arrived at Oxford with this research proposal in mind.

And that’s directly related to my work now – I’m doing strategic planning to figure out how we can make Google the Google that abides by future laws.

Rhodes Project: Who are your current role models and mentors – from Oxford or elsewhere?

Steffi Bryson: First and foremost, it’s my mom. She is amazing at what she does because she works hard at it, and I’ve always been so impressed by that. I also have some traditional mentors, including some professors and my current manager – Betsy Masiello – is a 2005 Rhodes scholar and I am learning so much from her.

My friends have also been a source of strength for me. In Oxford there was a small group of us women who struggled with imposter syndrome and we would meet occasionally to talk about this openly and honestly. I often think about those women today, and how they would respond if I were to tell them the things that I’m unsure or anxious about. Those relationships really motivate me to keep going – and to do so with confidence.

Rhodes Project: What books have been most transformative for you?

Steffi Bryson: I have spent so much time in the last six years just reading textbooks and non-fiction – it’s hard! The first one is Understanding Privacy by Daniel Solove and it’s all about what we mean when we talk about the modern concept of privacy – it does a great job of explaining Internet privacy. There is also a book coming out very soon called Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier – it’s a bit biased against Google but it’s a really good overview of current data collection practices both by companies and governments – and of how the commercial collection of data is making government surveillance easier. I don’t agree with all the solutions he proposes but it is a great overview of governmental surveillance and the commercial collection of data.

This past summer, just before joining Google, I also read Dave Egger’s novel The Circle. It’s a really fun and thought-provoking book about privacy, technology, progress and the future. I’m not saying that it’s the greatest piece of modern literature, but it really is a great read. But I do have to mention that my life isn’t all about Internet privacy and data protection – I promise!

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