A Look At Diversity In The Life Sciences

June 2020
RJ Panzo

Being a minority myself, I’ve been fortunate throughout my career in the life sciences to have been part of organizations that value diversity and inclusion. I’m privileged to say that I currently work at T3 Advisors, which is a company that not only values my diverse background but also encourages my diversity of thought. Hiring a scientist at a commercial real estate firm is likely a rare occurrence, but it was an intentional move by T3 to bring a different perspective into their mix. This is a perfect example of a company welcoming diversity of thought, as my experiences as a scientist and an operational professional provides impact and value to our Life Science clients.

Upon closer examination, you may find that diversity in the life sciences is lacking. Why is that? While you can’t deny the many benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce, implementing strategies to attract and retain diverse talent can be challenging—especially for early-stage companies. The giants like Merck, Biogen, and Pfizer can dedicate resources specifically towards diversity and inclusion, knowing that it statistically increases productivity and efficiency. These organizations strive to employ diverse talent knowing they are beacons for candidates that come from underrepresented groups that have the desire to feel valued and respected in the workplace.

The Definition of Diversity and Inclusion

American activist Verna Meyers stated it best: “Diversity is being invited to the party.” Imagine attending a gala where everyone in the room is similar to one another; where everyone’s stance on current events are identical; where everyone shares duplicate stories on how they were raised and brought up; where everyone shares the same culture, heritage, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Does that sound like a party you would want to attend?

The Merriam-Webster definition of diversity is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” In essence, there are two types of diversity:

  1. Inherent diversity, which is comprised of demographic traits that everyone is born with such as race, age, gender, and sexual preference
  2. Acquired diversity, which are traits that are gained by experiences such as employment, education, economics

All workforces are diverse either by inherent diversity or acquired diversity, and in most cases, workplaces contain both. However, Fraser Dove states that, “workplace diversity isn’t just about hiring people from underrepresented groups. It’s about creating an environment in which employees can thrive, be themselves, and participate in the organization. Overall, it’s about recognizing everyone as unique individuals and appreciating what they can contribute that’s different from what their peers can.”

If diversity is being invited to the party, Verna Meyers believes that, “inclusion is being asked to dance.” An inclusive workplace provides an accepting and safe environment that’s collaborative and one in which everyone’s opinions are heard; where open participation is encouraged by employees that have different perspectives which potentially may have a significant impact on the company. Inclusion and diversity go hand-in-hand. In a LinkedIn article written by Leith Mitchell, she said, “when people can work in an inclusive workplace where diversity is the norm—both inherent & acquired diversity—this, in turn, yields a commitment to creating innovation throughout organizations.” In an industry where innovation is the lifeblood, Life Science companies must attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workplace.

A Look at the Statistics

The findings from the first survey conducted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) reveal some startling statistics in the Life Science industry when it comes to the employment of diverse talent, from entry-level roles up to executive leadership and board positions.

Gender diversity is equally distributed with 45% female at the companies that were surveyed. Ratios are drastically different in the upper levels of management. The survey shows females comprise only 30% at the executive level and even less (18%) at the board level.

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Representation of ethnic diversity is a bit lower, at 32% for total employees. It’s jarring to see the drop of representation at the executive and board levels, at 15% and 14% respectively.

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While these numbers may be surprising, BIO states that diversity and inclusion in the life sciences are still in their infancy with “many companies still assessing the benefits.” Helen Torley, Chair of BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, stated that “while these numbers show progress in some areas, we know that as an industry, we can do better.” She also added that many participating companies expressed a strong desire for improvement.

In a recent Fraser Dove article published:

  • 87% of global organizations are committed to implementing a diverse workforce, although some admitted there’s a long way to go to achieve this.
  • 67% of job searchers consider diversity an important factor when considering a new employment opportunity.
  • In a survey, more than half (57%) of employees believe their organization should be doing more to increase the diversity of their workforce.

The Importance of Diversity in the Life Sciences

A workforce with various experiences and backgrounds is a sure path to innovation. Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM Academy of Technology once said, “Innovation—once the solitary pursuit of genius—has become a collaborative enterprise, understandably, since the types of problems we must address these days are too complex for one or two or three people, or a whole lab, or even the resources of an entire company.” Diverse teams approach problems from different perspectives and apply more tools in their arsenal to enable complex problems to be solved.  According to the Fraser Dove article, “a diverse team consisting of people from different backgrounds and demographics will bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the table. An organization that accepts that its employees have unique personalities allows them to thrive and flourish. As a result, diverse teams drive innovation, creativity, implement new ways of doing things, and enhance problem-solving within your organization.” Tony Montana, Vice President of Scientific Operations for Garden State Nutraceuticals, notes, “our structural analysis team consists of five members, each of a different cultural background. Their backgrounds and education are quite diverse from each other. Nevertheless, they communicate quite effectively as a team, and the diversity of their backgrounds allows each to present [his or her] own different views and opinions in regard to problem solving. They have established themselves as one of the most productive and innovative teams within our organization.”

Another benefit is higher employee engagement and lower turnover rates. By creating a diverse and inclusive environment, employees are generally more engaged, productive, and loyal. If candidates come in to interview at a company and are greeted by attentive and engaged employees, they will likely want to be part of that company. As mentioned previously, 67% of job seekers consider workplace diversity an important factor when considering a new employment opportunity. An engaged and valued employee is also happier and less likely to leave for another position. Any HR employee will tell you about the difficulties of managing the constant flow of resignations and rehiring of positions. “By halting the problem in its tracks and investing in diversifying your workforce, companies will have a significantly reduced employee turnover. Reduced employee turnover means that you can focus on nurturing your current employees,” says Fraser Dove.

Attracting More Diversity

Unfortunately, there isn’t an IKEA instruction manual that will detail how to attract more diversity. So how do companies make themselves attractive for more diverse talent? You could write a whole detailed article solely on attracting diversity, but here are a few easy ways that small companies can do it.

If a company has a diverse workforce that is engaged and productive, those employees are likely to have similar friends and former colleagues. Having a good employee referral program that offers initiatives is a sure way to help attract other candidates that may be a good fit for the company.

According to Lab Manager Magazine, “attracting talent right out of school is often a strategy for helping shape the career of generally younger people, but is also a great place to find diversity.” Bringing in annual co-ops and internships are also a good way to get introduced to diverse talent from all levels of institutional study.” Having a recruiting strategy that targets young talent is an alternative way to help create a diverse team where you can more easily scout from Universities’ student clubs and organizations.

From an operational perspective, enabling the physical space and providing accommodating benefits is another way to attract diversity. Does your company provide nursing rooms and/or extended maternal/paternal leaves? Are there rooms available for prayer or meditation? Are your benefits inclusive to the LGBTQ+ individuals? Lab Manager Magazine states, “these are things that can help attract top talent and show you will welcome them as equal employees without singling them out, or making them feel that they won’t find a sense of belonging at your company.”