Growing up in Albania, an ex-Communist country, Associate Professor Elvira Sojli has always been interested in understanding and studying finance. She was particularly interested in pursuing a career in Australia, and when she was offered a position at UNSW Business School as a Senior Lecture within the School of Banking and Finance in 2016, Elvira accepted the job without even visiting Sydney.

Luckily, the move lived up to her high expectations, as she was promptly promoted to Associate Professor in 2018, was appointed Head of the Digital Finance CRC in 2017, President of the Finance Research Network (FIRN) in Australia in 2021, and the Chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and subsequently the Associate Dean (Equity Diversity and Inclusion) from 2022 – 2024.

Through an extensive research career, Associate Professor Sojli has identified significant gaps in representation between males and females in how innovation is funded around the world. Wanting to break down the societal barriers that tell women they don’t have a future in fields like finance.

Participating as a faculty mentor and academic lead in the annual UNSW Business School’s Girls in Business Camp is one way she’s helping make this happen for future women in finance.

The UNSW Business School EDI team sat down with Associate Professor Sojli to learn more about her career and why more female-identifying students should consider a career in the finance industry.

Were you always interested in banking and finance?

Believe it or not, I was always interested in finance, even as a child. I was born and raised in Albania, so I spent most of my childhood in communism, with what you could call a very “planned” economy. Once the regime changed, I became more interested in understanding how money circulates, how decisions are made around money, and so on. That’s where my interest started.

And how did you get into this field of study?  

Banking and Finance degrees didn’t exist when I did my undergrad, so I moved to the UK for an undergrad in Accounting and Finance at the London School of Economics and Political Science and then did a master’s in Economics and Finance at the University of Warwick. Finally, I topped it up with a PhD on the finance aspect of exchange rates, where I married the disciplines of economics and finance together.

Did you have any female role models that helped you forge this path?

My mother is an accountant, which was the finance version of a communist/planned economy, so her work brought an understanding and interest in finance into the home. She influenced me to study in this area. My maths teachers were all incredible women, and so were my physics and chemistry teachers. I found these smart women very inspiring, and I looked up to all of them. I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

Can you tell us about your research interests?

My research has varied over time. My PhD was on exchange rates, which led me to other market securities like stocks and bonds. After working in this area for close to 10 years, I felt I had stopped learning and there wasn’t anything new to discover.

So, after discussing research topics with colleagues at the National University of Singapore, I’ve spent the last seven years researching innovation at the economic level within firms and industries – exploring things like how firms decide what types of innovation to invest in, which product types to pursue, etc. Typically where and why they choose to invest their money and the reasons behind these decisions.

And that research has brought you to an interest in understanding the role of and determinants of female participation in innovation?

Yes, it’s called the Gender Patent Gap. We looked at patents as the output of innovation and soon realised there are major differences in innovation participation between men and women around the world. The geographical dispersion we see for female innovation world map was a shock to my American co-author.

There were twice as many women patenting proportionally in comparison to men, in ex-Communist countries, in comparison to NATO members.

So, I went on to investigate why some post-communist countries in Eastern Europe have nearly equal innovation participation between men and women, while in NATO countries like Australia, you’re seeing rates of 10% for women and 90% for men at the same points in time.

While this was an interesting fact, the more important question is why are there such big differences across countries. Certainly, it cannot be that women are that different in Eastern and Western Germany, or in Austria vs Slovakia, etc. That led me to look at the impacts of role models, other external interventions like the contraceptive pill, discriminatory laws and societal stereotyping.

And why do you think this is an important topic to explore?

There are so many reasons. But as a woman in banking and finance, it’s appalling to still hear people say, “Oh, but women prefer not to study science,” or, “Women are not as mathematically apt as men.”

The data tells another story. There are places where innovation participation sits at 50/50 for men and women. That indicates it’s not really a preference or aptitude because we can't say that women’s brains function differently from place to place.

By removing arguments based on physiological and psychological differences, we have evidence to support that this imbalance is actually a product of the environment you're in and the support that you get. Hopefully, these facts can influence some of the decision-makers to change their policies and ingrained stereotypical mindsets to eventually get things back in balance.

Your research aligns pretty well with the premise of the Girls in Business Camp. Why is it important to have programs like this available for girls?

Yes, it does really confirm what I believe is important. We’ve found in our research that when you show young girls the career paths or experiences of a few inspirational female role models, we show them what is possible for them to achieve.

If you study business, if you study finance, if you study economics, there is a path for you and there are many women here that have done it. It’s important to show what doors can open once you have any of these degrees under your belt.

What do you think the girls will like most or find the most valuable at this year’s camp?

To help girls see themselves in these fields, this year we are not only showing them academic and alumni role models, but they will be visiting industry partners. There is one whole day where they will be matched with firms in the finance industry, and they will get a good idea of what the future could look like. Participants can then take this information back home to their parents and help visualise where this study path may take them.

I think they’ll find this really valuable. We want them to walk away with a complete package of knowledge of what they should expect while they’re here and where it might take them. It also aligns well with UNSW’s commitment to work-integrated learning (WIL) within undergraduate programs, which aims to give students the skills to translate what they’ve learnt into practical applications.

And finally, why do you want to see more women and girls in the business and finance industry?

Because there is no progress without representation. Nobody will represent our interests or make changes that are needed to help us achieve what we want, and get what we need if we're not there.

And since we’re talking about the finance world, it has always operated under the umbrella of diversification. If you have different types, with different risks, then by putting them together, you lower the aggregate risk. But this is a sector that’s mostly dominated by men who finance other men, leaving us in a much riskier environment than we should be. But if we have more women making decisions, I think it will help us to diversify a lot of this risk where possible.

Want to explore your future in business?

Associate Professor Elvira Sojli is one of the mentors at the UNSW Girls in Business Camp, which is open to any year 10, 11 or 12 female-identifying high school students in New South Wales who have a genuine interest in studying Banking and Finance, Economics, Information Systems and Technology Management, Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

Learn more about the UNSW Girls in Business Camp

Learn more about Banking and Finance at UNSW Business School

Find out more about the UNSW Business School