Lilia Abaibourova was studying to become a civil engineer in Russia when she came to the United States for the first time through an exchange program. She had been interested in computer science classes since she was in middle school, but had pursued civil engineering to continue in the footsteps of many of her family members.
After becoming exposed to the college education system in the U.S., Lilia knew she wanted to study here, and decided to make the move. What’s more, she wanted to switch gears and pursue her original dream: computer science.
“The act of changing where I was going to live pushed me to make the decision to change my major,” Lilia says. “I was already going to be different from the other students because I was from another country. So the fact that I was going to be one of the very few females in my class didn’t seem as daunting as it might have otherwise, and I decided to just go for it.”
As Lilia progressed through her education in the United States, she noticed the differences in the tech cultures between Russia and the U.S. when it came to welcoming women. She explains that while she was studying in Russia, there was less of a bias against women who pursued general math, science and engineering careers. But when it came to computer science, there was a perception that women weren’t as good or naturally inclined toward the field.
“There would be job postings for programming positions that would say they were explicitly seeking a male,” she recalls. “So when I started grad school in the States, I was one of the very few women in the program, but I didn’t feel like I was at a complete disadvantage. I was wondering why more women weren’t joining this field.”
After graduating, Lilia joined Microsoft. She says because of the interdisciplinary nature of the company, there were more women overall, but they weren’t in core engineering roles.
When she attended the Grace Hopper Celebration for the first time in 2006, Lilia began to really understand the reasons behind the lack of women in tech in the United States, why the numbers are shrinking and why women tend to leave the field in greater numbers than men.
“That’s when I realized that maybe it’s not fine. Maybe there is something more I can do.”
To that end, Lilia started a small lunch group for the women on her own team at Microsoft. That initiative attracted the attention of others at Microsoft, and Lilia was invited to become involved in kicking off a larger effort at the company, Women of Office, in 2009. This group, equipped with a budget, was able to offer more structured goals and career-oriented events for Microsoft’s women employees.
“It was clear at that point that department managers at the company needed to have a strategy to increase women in tech,” Lilia says.
Having a strategy in place to better represent women in technical roles is one of the key ways to bridge the gender gap in tech, according to Lilia.
Today, Lilia, a senior staff engineer at HBO, can easily identify the subtle issues that come up when companies are interviewing women versus men.
“You’ll notice that women are more likely to use the term ‘we’ when describing achievements, even if they did the bulk of the work,” she says. “Men are more likely to take credit for all the work, even if it was a team effort. The language they use is more individualistic and exclusive.”
She points out that this distinction is just one example of something that companies should learn to recognize. Many companies understand the importance of having more women in technical roles, but don’t know how to start. Lilia pushes for more education and more solutions and suggestions as to how organizations can make changes.
“It needs to be more obvious for organizations to genuinely recognize the problem, and they need resources to tackle the issue,” says Lilia. “Hiring managers need to be educated on the lack of women in tech, and then they need concrete ways of changing their practices.”