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Freezing sperm and saving lives: why women in STEM don't do finance

Dr Sonia Contera is a brilliant woman. A professor of experimental physics at Oxford University's Clarendon Lab, she could easily have worked at somewhere like Winton Capital Management or Two Sigma, but she didn't. Instead, Contera has chosen to apply her excellence to generating tangible improvements in people's lives. She's not alone. At an event for women in STEM hosted by Spain's CaixaBank in London last week, Contera wasn't the only academic explaining why some women might prefer working in a lab to working for a quantitative hedge fund.

"At Oxford, 90% of the people in my lab are women," said Contera. While finance firms struggle to recruit women in STEM, Contera said these women gravitate towards her. "Women like to put their ideas to good use...They want to make a difference."

Contera herself is making a difference by investigating the use of ultrasound to palliate pain and ways to improve the cryogenic freezing process. "Only 27% of men have sperm that can be frozen," she said. "And only 50% of those frozen sperm survive." Improved freezing would therefore greatly improve the success rate of artificial insemination in humans, and improve the lives of women who bear the brunt of fertility treatments.

Dr Esther Rodriguez-Villegas, professor of Low Power Electronics and director of the Wearable Technologies Lab at London's Imperial College could equally have worked as a top quant in finance. Like Contera, however, she chose to apply her expertise to public good. "I could easily have had a lot of fun solving IQ puzzles, but I didn't just want to have fun," said Rodriguez-Villegas. "I wanted to work in healthcare." Today, she's also chief scientific officer of Acurable, a company that creates wearable technology to help patients with respiratory conditions and prevents otherwise healthy people from dying unexpectedly in their sleep. "I didn't want to be CSO," says Rodriguez-Villegas. "I was made to be."

In this way, two of Europe's top female scientists suggest one reason why banks have such trouble finding female quants and strats. Research by recruitment firm Octavius Finance found that when one major bank in London advertised quant jobs it received only two CVs from qualified women for every 50 it received from qualified men. This is partly because fewer women study quant subjects (women are only around 20% of UK computer science graduates and 40% of mathematics graduates, says Octavius), but it's also because women don't apply. Contera and Rodriguez-Villegas suggest they have better things to do with their brains.

Neither of the two women wanted to prioritize making money, and neither was short of offers. "Finding money is not a problem," said Contera. "I can usually find someone who will invest in my ideas....Sometimes I give my inventions away." Rodriguez-Villegas said she quickly raised $3m in investment after co-founding Acurable to take her respiratory device to market. "We didn't choose the investors who offered the highest valuation," she said, "We chose those we liked the most. The most ethical people. Most start-ups hate meeting their investors, but we love meeting ours."

While brilliant women are opting to start their careers in academia rather than finance, both Contera and Rodriguez-Villegas also highlighted their frustrations with university careers in Europe. American universities have close links with business, but European universities operate in isolation. "Knowledge is trapped in universities," says Contera. "Young women don't want to stay in academia because they realize it will be hard to get their ideas out and they want to make a difference."

"It can be very difficult to get intellectual property ideas to the user from an academic lab," agreed Rodriguez-Villegas. "You investigate, and you write a paper and the university is happy to leave it at that."

This is where finance comes in, and where private equity funds - as opposed to quant hedge funds - might have something to offer the women in STEM who want to make the world a better place.

CaixaBank also hosted a female representative of a large U.S. private equity fund in Europe. Speaking off the record, she insisted that private equity careers aren't just about making money. They're also about,  "bringing great products to market", and, matching ideas for improving the world with the capital necessary to realize them. "These are jobs that...stand for more than just getting a bonus at the end of the year – they are exciting and innovative and have a real impact," she said. "Are we really convinced that women don’t want to be massively overpaid for jobs that allow them to influence the world?"

Neither Rodriguez-Villegas nor Contera responded directly. However, some women who start in academia may cross the commercial Rubicon. They could have a lot to offer. "The best people at this [private equity tech investing] are those with networks across the board," said the private equity investor." They have been technologists but they have also worked with CFOs....Beyond anything else, success in finance is about the ability to build relationships and empathize with people, and this is the kind of thing that women do best."

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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