Diversity And Inclusion In Pharma: How Companies Can Lead The Way

Across all organisations, diversity and inclusion is no longer simply a ‘nice to have’. Whilst making employees of all cultures and background feel welcomed and accepted is an admirable goal, it’s also proven to have concrete benefits, from increased productivity and creativity, to enhanced problem-solving. Within the pharmaceutical and life sciences industry, organisations built upon strong ED&I values will also benefit from an enhanced understanding of the human condition in its many varieties, which can translate to more successful therapeutic products. Nevertheless, diversity and inclusion remains one of the biggest challenges facing the life sciences sector today. Research tells us that when recruiting, unconscious bias compels people to hire others that mirror their own characteristics. In an industry dominated by white men, it’s easy to see why this is a problem.  

The state of diversity in the pharma industry

A quick glance at the boards of the top 25 pharma companies demonstrates that at the executive level, such organisations remain culturally homogenous. In fact, one-third of the top 50 pharma companies in the US have no women on their board, and only 8% of board seats are held by ethnically diverse directors, compared to 14% of the Fortune 500 overall. These numbers are lower still for executive committees, with 19 of the top 50 companies having no women on their ExCos. Despite this, there are signs that the industry is making steps in the right direction. Research in 2018 revealed that 80% of the 25 largest publicly traded pharma companies in the US and Europe had chief diversity officer or equivalent roles, and biopharmaceutical companies in particular have begun setting ambitious targets to ensure greater representation amongst women and minority communities. Organisations are beginning to devote more resources to help achieve these targets by supporting employee resource groups, providing professional development opportunities, and taking steps to diversify the STEM talent pipeline. 

Why does diversity matter for pharma? 

Perhaps more so than within any other scientific field, trust, inclusion and equity are incredibly important values for all pharmaceutical organisations to uphold. The public needs to trust that companies are acting in their best interests, and that their needs are being adequately considered and represented. When developing new medications and therapies, life sciences companies are being tasked with creating products for a diverse range of patients and care providers. By integrating key ED&I principles from the outset, firms can ensure that the therapies they design are as widely useful and applicable as possible. For example, a lack of diversity within a clinical trial environment can be an obstacle to understanding the safety and efficacy of novel therapies across population subgroups. Organisations that are more diverse in nature are more likely to consider factors such as these early on, reaping the benefits of increased success and profitability whilst improving the quality of patient care. 

How can pharmaceutical leaders improve diversity and inclusion?

Let’s take a look at some simple steps pharmaceutical and life sciences companies can follow in order to create a fairer and more equitable workplace for all. 

Break from tradition

One of the biggest issues facing the pharmaceutical industry is that most CEOs and board chairs tend to select from their own established networks, subsequently choosing to work with others who think, act, and look like them. Some organisations even make it a policy to only appoint new directors who are already known by current board members. The natural result of this is that large numbers of highly skilled and talented people that could boost company performance are being overlooked. Leaders should therefore examine diverse talent pipelines within their own organisation who can bring a unique perspective to the table, or look to bring on board outside talent from non-traditional sources. In particular, a board member who is experienced and knowledgeable on issues of equality and diversity can be very beneficial. 

Look beyond the board 

Pharmaceutical companies should recognise the crucial importance of building a workforce reflective of its consumers. As a global industry, patients come from every culture, race, socio-economic group, religion, and sexuality. As the industry shifts towards personalised medicine, building a culturally intelligent organisation can provide a key competitive advantage. Companies should therefore look to ensure that their workforce is diverse at every level, from manufacturing and engineering to sales and distribution. For example, whilst women represent 47% of the pharmaceutical workforce on average, they only account for 26% of STEM roles. Organisations should consider initiatives such as auditing the recruitment process to remove bias, offering internships to minority groups, and encourage diverse employees to refer their connections. 

Take a systematic approach

Treating ED&I like any other business goal can help produce a more well-rounded strategy and produce faster results. Organisations should layout the business case for boosting diversity, and ensure that all key stake holders are in agreement to make the issue a priority. Clarify roles and responsibilities with clear governance structures to ensure accountability for delivering on targets, and review progress quarterly to examine where your strategy needs to be refined. 

Work on your employer branding

Consider sharing the successes of women and minority groups within your organisation on your company website and social media, as this will highlight that you’re committed to championing underrepresented talent. These stories can form an integral part of your employer branding, and will help to encourage diverse talent to apply for positions when they become available. Additionally, it’s vital to ensure that diversity and inclusion is given prominence within your company values. This doesn’t mean simply paying lip service to the topic, but rather spelling out to potential candidates exactly how you support underrepresented talent, whether it’s through paid training opportunities or clearly defined progression pathways. 

Create mentoring and sponsorship opportunities

It’s vital that pharmaceutical companies aim to create an environment in which all employees are encouraged to grow and develop, and provided with the tools and support they need to reach their full potential. Although in recent years the number of events and networks that support minority groups in life sciences has increased, formal sponsoring and mentorship programmes can offer even greater benefits. Consider creating dedicated programmes for employees that can help them discover a mentor or sponsor, and reinforce the mutual benefits the relationship can offer to encourage senior members of the company to get involved. For example, reverse sponsorship can help experienced life science professionals to benefit from different perspectives, and discover which issues are most important to the next generation of pharma workers. In addition, it’s helpful to provide mentorship training, so that mentors are clear on how they can best contribute to a mentee’s professional development. 

Our Pharma Partners team are experts in life science recruitment, and specialise in pharmaceutical physicians, medical affairs, R&D, and the pharmacovigilance space. You can take a look at all our roles here, or get in touch with us for a confidential discussion.

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