Nandini Ramani is vice president of engineering at Twitter, but despite her high-ranking position, she says it hasn’t gotten easier to be a woman in technology.
“People say, ‘Oh it must be easy for you, you’re VP,'” she said this weekend at the Connect 2016 Conference in Seattle, hosted by Women Who Code. “Hell no. It’s just as hard. The men don’t go anywhere, they’re still there.”
Ramani said that she wished that she could tell the women in the audience that it gets easier as time goes on and they progress in their careers. “But the reality is, it doesn’t,” she said. “So brace yourself for that.”
That said, “it can be done and there are remarkable women who are succeeding,” she said. At Twitter, Ramani said that she’s received a lot of support from CEO Jack Dorsey and is excited for his new initiatives for the company, but that it has still been tough to be a woman in tech.
“It’s comforting when you see others like yourself, and that’s not always the case when you’re in engineering,” she said.
Looking back, Ramani credits her Indian grandmother’s lessons about the world as the reason she’s been able to make a career for herself in tech, despite the odds. Even though, at the time, she disagreed with her grandmother.
“I was raised very strongly by my paternal grandmother, who was a driving force and taught me a lot of life’s lessons,” Ramani said. “Most of what I learned, I learned on her knee, so to speak…I’ve had many mentors since then, but I didn’t realize that she would still be my number one mentor.”
Her paternal grandmother was raised, as was Ramani, in Bangalore, India. The southern part of India tends to be more conservative than the northern part, Ramani said, and as a child, she was told that the only way to succeed as a woman was to learn to play an instrument, learn to cook, get a degree, and then marry and have children.
“It was a check list for a resume,” she said. “That was what success looked like.”
Ramani did most of those things — except for the cooking, she said — but she wanted more. And as Ramani grew up, she and her grandmother would fight about how she should go about it.
One of the things Ramani’s grandmother told her was: “It’s a man’s world. First and foremost — accept that. Don’t keep trying to dispute something that’s reality. Once you learn that and you absorb it, then you learn to figure out how to rule the men so you can rule the world, rather than try to be fighting against it.”
Ramani used to think that her grandmother was speaking from an antiquated perspective that didn’t relate at all to her own life in the modern world. For context, Ramani’s grandmother grew up during India’s Partition, Ramani said. She was married “at seven, or something insanely low,” Ramani said, and wasn’t educated past the fifth grade.
“She came from an era that was way back,” Ramani said. “She lived in a very male-dominated society.”
Ramani believed that things had changed since her grandmother’s youth and that her prospects would be determined by an entirely different set of forces.
“I used to argue and say, ‘No, it’s not a man’s world’ and ‘I can do anything a man does,'” Ramani said. “But now in retro, when I think about what she told me, I see where she was coming from.”
As she grew in her career through Sun Microsystems and Oracle to Twitter, Ramani realized that her grandmother was right. It was still a man’s world, even if it wasn’t as obvious as it was during her grandmother’s time.
Men ruled society in India and they ruled society in America, even in the most modern jobs of all, in technology, Ramani said.
When she found herself fighting for responsibilities and recognition in her career, Ramani thought back to her grandmother’s advice that she had shrugged off at the time. She realized that her energy would be better spent finding mentors, advisors, and sponsors who would help her career, rather than trying to fight alone against the system.
“Don’t use all of your energy fighting something that’s reality,” Ramani said. “Instead, find ways around it. Find people who can help you.”
For Ramani, some of those people have been at Twitter. She describes Dorsey as “an amazing advocate.” Now that Ramani is in a position of power herself, she is an advocate, as well, trying to aid women an industry and a world that’s often set up without women in mind.
“I really value women who code,” she said. “I want to make sure that they have influence and impact.”