Originally published by WGBH.org on November 22, 2021
While efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion have been underway for a number of years at biopharma companies in Massachusetts, results so far — at least around race — are negligible.
The last few years saw inconsistent but clear gains for women at Massachusetts biopharma companies, while racial diversity is paltry, according to a new survey released by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) last week. The survey, which examined diversity, equity and inclusion at biopharma companies statewide, found that just 15% of the biopharma workforce is Black or brown, compared to 32% of Massachusetts residents.
Industry leaders say that companies need to work proactively to create opportunities across the board, from forming new pipelines for potential employees to forging pathways to rise through the ranks.
“At the core, the life science industry is about bringing solutions to patients. And the only way the industry can truly do that is if the industry is reflective of the patient population we serve,” said Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, President and Chief Operating Officer at MassBio.
More than a third of Massachusetts biopharma board members are women, up from 14% in 2017, but gender diversity among senior executives has stayed flat, with just 24% women.
O’Connell said that as women are advancing further in their careers, time commitment between work and home life can become a challenge. “Often women are having to make those decisions, whether they stay at home or juggling that work-life balance,” she said. “We also needed to ensure that companies were proactively creating more pathways for women.”
Carolina Alarco, who’s spent more than 25 years in the biopharma world in Boston, said in a GBH News interview that a lot of companies are working to “diversify the conduit pipeline.” Alarco started at Genzyme, where she rose to a vice president role, and has worked at an array of biopharma companies before her current role as founder and Principal of Bio Strategy Advisors LLC, a business consulting firm working with bio and medtech companies in Massachusetts.
Alarco said organizations like hers just need them to be “more intentional” about their outreach to affinity organizations.
She co-founded and chairs Latinos in Bio, a group launched in 2019 that’s since grown to over 460 individual members.
Latinos in Bio has come across companies who cite lack of resources to devote to diversifying as a chief concern, a finding reflected in MassBio’s survey. “I say, well, although we are disappointed with that decision, we hope that in next year’s budget, you consider these kinds of partnerships with organizations that are working to bring diversity to the biopharma industry as part of your plan,” Alarco said.
Reaching out to affinity groups is one of MassBio’s recommendations for increasing company diversity, instead of just relying on traditional job fairs and events. But according to the MassBio survey, hubs of Black and brown knowledge, like Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), are rarely contacted. Of the 85 biopharma companies surveyed, 65 said they had never recruited from HBCUs, or higher education institutions focused on promoting tribal or Hispanic populations.
Only 20 of the companies said they worked with “affinity” organizations, or those that specifically recruit Black and brown employees like Women of Color in Pharma.
“I think a lot of people will get alarmed when they see those kind of numbers, but you really have to look at the environment that the life science organizations are at. Basically, when you talk about their size, scope and resources available to them, a lot of them are startups. They don’t have those turnkey solutions in place yet,” said Ross Marshall, Senior Director of DEI Advisory at MassBio.
Alarco’s group Latinos in Bio promotes job openings to their membership, an effort she hopes to expand as it becomes more organized. She added that there’s a lot of “misconceptions” about people working in biopharma only being in the role of the scientist. Alarco, on the commercial side of biopharma, has been in executive leadership roles at companies like Novelion Therapeutics and Aegerion Pharmaceuticals.
“We are just talking to life sciences companies and biopharma to become partners. And part of the partnership is that we will campaign and promote all of their openings,” she said. The group has had some success, Alarco said, but getting Latinos into the industry can be an uphill battle, as the MassBio survey demonstrated, she said.
The survey also identified a gap between a stated commitment to diversity and inclusion versus efforts to track it. More than half of the surveyed companies had a company-wide diversity statement, but just 24% said they had established a “diversity dashboard” to create a baseline for diversity to measure against in the future.
“We encourage all of our member companies to not only measure their DEI against industry benchmarks, but also against themselves over time,”said MassBio CEO Joe Boncore, a legislator who left Beacon Hill in the fall to work at the organization.
In the years to come, Alarco said the survey will be key to tracking changes in how people of color are represented at the top of biopharma companies. MassBio plans on repeating similar surveys every two years.
“If diversity is not increased at the leadership level, including the board level and the C-suite level, it’s going to be really difficult that companies really take this, you know, as a priority,” she said.