Racial disparities continue to plague biopharma workforce, report finds—but boards do have more women

Jan 05, 2022

By Natalie Missakian

Originally published by Fierce Pharma on January 4, 2022

Massachusetts is arguably the largest life sciences hub in the world, but, much like the industry as a whole, its biopharma companies have work to do when it comes to hiring people of color. 

That’s according to a new report (PDF) by industry group MassBio, Massachusetts’ nonprofit life sciences group, which issued the report to serve as a baseline against which members can evaluate their progress on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

When it came to racial diversity, the numbers were grim: It found just 15% of the Massachusetts biopharma workforce was Black, Latino or Native American, despite those groups making up 32% of the state’s population as a whole.

MassBio counted Asian workers separately from other people of color, noting that Asian employees are regularly overrepresented in the biopharma industry compared to the general population. 

The industry did better when it came to gender diversity, but still results were mixed.

The bright spot? A significant boost in female representation on biopharma boards. Respondents reported women comprised 37% of their boards, up from the dismal 14% in a 2017 survey, a 164% increase.

Still, among the highest executive ranks, the needle hasn’t moved. The latest report showed women holding 24% of C-suite roles: the same figure companies reported back in 2017.

MassBio conducted the survey between October 2020 and June 2021. It polled 85 companies with CEOs among those who signed the organization’s pledge for a more equitable and inclusive life sciences industry in the summer of 2020. 

In 2017, MassBio asked companies to sign a similar pledge concerning gender diversity, which Joe Boncore, MassBio’s CEO, credits in part for the big jump in female representation on boards.

“It’s a clear sign that commitment to diversity can really effect change over time,” he said.

He hopes the 2020 pledge will also bear fruit in the future and said MassBio plans to conduct follow-up surveys and hold its members accountable.

“What we do know is it takes time,” he added. 

But there are immediate steps companies can take, said Warner Santiago, MassBio’s senior director of DEI and workforce development. 

His top recommendation? Establishing a “diversity dashboard,” whereby a company takes a snapshot of the diversity of its staff and measures progress against itself over time. 

Santiago calls it a “foundational DEI measure,” yet fewer than a quarter (24%) of survey respondents had established such a dashboard. 

Other suggestions include adopting a companywide DEI statement and completing an employee engagement survey that addresses DEI. Only 56% of surveyed companies reported doing either. 

Santiago said most of MassBio’s members are small biotechs with limited resources, so DEI initiatives often end up being handled by employee volunteers. Nearly half of companies surveyed cited lack of resources and bandwidth as an obstacle to implementing successful DEI programs.

Boncore emphasized that DEI “cannot be considered in a vacuum” or as an “afterthought,” but rather must be “a top-down initiative tied directly to a business’ objectives, and it needs to be measurable.”

He added that diversity is especially important in biopharma, which deals with life-saving treatments for diverse groups of patients around the world.

“The whole industry is patient-driven, and with more diverse teams in leadership, we’ll have better outcomes for more diverse sets of patients,” he said.

Read the full article from Fierce Pharma

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