Magazine Article | October 10, 2017

Fostering Innovation Through A Diverse Workforce In Biotech

Source: Life Science Leader

By Ingrid Boyes, SVP of human resources, MyoKardia

It’s no secret that workforce diversity is not progressing as quickly as we once thought it might. Some areas have moved more slowly than others. We see that in politics and sports, banking and law. Hollywood’s proverbial feet have been held to the fire because of it. And biotech is no exception.

We are an industry steeped to its core in innovation, challenging the standards of healthcare to transform the future for patients. Achieving that requires us to embrace diversity in all its forms.

Catalyst, a New York-based research and advocacy group for executive women, recently found that while women earned nearly 40 percent of undergraduate bioengineering and biomedical engineering degrees — and 38 percent of doctorates in those fields in 2011 — their educational achievements are not translating into top jobs. Women occupy only 20 of 112 senior management positions at the 10 highest-valued companies in the biotech industry. Furthermore, according to a study this year from British recruitment firm Liftstream, of the 177 biotech companies that went public between 2012 and 2015, women held only 11 percent of the board positions.

And yet, there is plenty of evidence that indicates the biotech sector would benefit immensely from instituting more diversity among leadership and in the workplace in general. A 2015 McKinsey study examined 366 public companies across industries in the United States, Latin America, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry means, and companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to be above their national industry means. Moreover, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnicity were shown to be less likely than average companies to achieve better profits.

The study cautions that correlation is not causation; that it may simply be that whatever makes these companies successful is also what pushes them toward more diverse hiring practices. Whatever the case, it is inarguable that diversity is overwhelmingly an indicator of success for public companies, and not just something that we should want from a moral standpoint — but from a business standpoint as well.

Our field can look to our colleagues in the Silicon Valley technology space, which has recently faced increased public scrutiny in this regard, as an example of how to begin to course correct. The diversity gap in the technology industry is wide, highlighted by poor findings in 2014 company surveys and bolstered by equally negative reports from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Despite these challenges, significant players are making meaningful changes. Recent diversity reports from major names in the technology industry such as Intel, Twitter, and Dropbox all show an improvement in this category. But the media had to criticize Silicon Valley relentlessly to force the hand of many of these companies, at which point business leaders in the technology industry had to scramble to save face. The biotechnology industry must take example from the technology industry and proactively address diversity issues in their own workplaces, before it becomes an issue that is much more difficult to address.

So what should a biotech company do if it wants to improve diversity in its leadership (and its workplace overall)? It starts with the leadership. No matter how an organization approaches improving diversity, it is something leadership must be committed to in order for everyone to succeed. We need to empower those that understand the benefits of a diverse leadership, and establish a corporate mindset that values their various contributions.

Effective biotech companies are those that recognize true workforce diversity as a business imperative. Making bold changes to achieve that is a testament to organizational adaptability and it will naturally set you apart. However, biotech must take the right steps to ensure that employees across the enterprise are ready to embrace diversity in all of its forms. The companies with the most effective diversity programs take a strategic approach by following these guidelines:

  • Make diversity unique to your organization. To be effective, diversity planning must be aligned with and provide support for strategic business objectives and operational decisions. Diversity should be linked to strategic plans and, therefore, unique to each company.
  • Diversify now to stay ahead of the competition. Companies that adopt methods of diversifying their employee base now will benefit in the long run because it prevents an organization from becoming too insular and out of touch. They will be better enabled to stay competitive by anticipating and addressing the increasingly complex problems facing the biotech industry and the patients we serve.
  • Cosmetic diversity is not enough. No organization can create meaningful change by filling quotas and complying with affirmative action initiatives. Diversity is about so much more. It’s about creating an environment where people feel free to challenge the status quo, deliver new perspectives and solutions, and share success.
  • Diversity is a state of mind. Listen and learn from those around you, and resist the impulse to follow a narrow, predetermined path to success. Actively include people who are different and employ a set of values based on mutual respect and constructive disagreement. Importantly, offer work/life flexibility to address the needs of a global, multigenerational workforce.
  • Diversity is a journey, not a destination. Diversity management is complex, and not every company will advance at the same pace. It is a process of continuous improvement, which must be responsive to feedback from employees and other stakeholders.
  • Facilitate employee connections to help unite a diverse workforce. No one wants to feel so unique that they’re isolated from peers and lost in the workplace. It’s equally important to provide resources for like people to connect as it is to celebrate diversity with team building activities.
  • Harness the power of data to evaluate progress. Diversity strategies must contain well-defined metrics (e.g., linking to specific goals such as morale, retention, performance, and the bottom line) so that all employees and leaders clearly understand what is expected. Regularly assess progress so that changes are made quickly and accordingly to maximize effectiveness.

As our ambitions in biotech and the broader healthcare industry continue to grow, and we’re faced with unique and complex challenges, it is imperative that our workforce reflects a level of thinking cultivated from the very best that human difference offers. We must understand that discrimination based on age, disability, gender, nationality, race, religion, and sexual orientation is not only ethically disastrous, but bad business. And the culture must be inclusive to unearth new ideas and advance research and development efforts, particularly in the era of precision medicine.

As research focuses more on understanding the genetic makeup that leads to diseases on an individual basis, the commonalities between the importance of diversity in biotech and advancing precision medicine cannot be ignored. They are both essential to stay competitive in biotech today, and they both have demonstrated that subscribing to a one-size-fits-all strategy is no longer relevant or effective.

I believe that diversity in the workplace will continue to foster innovation, and it will take us into the new frontier of discovering therapies that have the potential to impact large, underserved patient populations. But it is up to us at the center of the biotech industry to seize this extraordinary opportunity. If we can differentiate biotech from industries that still believe diversity is about head count and compliance rather than using diversity as a business strategy to solve business problems and contribute to business growth, we can set precedent and potentially even make history.