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Racial and ethnic diversity in the life sciences sector requires a tailored approach


This article is authored by Karl Simpson of Liftstream, an executive search and leadership advisory business servicing the life sciences industry in Europe and the US. In the article, he examines how life sciences companies in the US should introduce tailored approaches to racial and ethnic diversity. 

A study of the talent pipeline in the life sciences sector, from entry-level to boardroom, provides multiple opportunities to assess where talent resides, as well as where it is coming from and going. In late 2017, we published a study of life science companies across Massachusetts that showed where women were participating in the industry’s workforce. Despite widespread protestations to the contrary, the undeniable availability of women who currently do, or have immediate potential to, serve in the most senior roles (c-suite and board), supports every argument for their greater inclusion at the top of companies. The 24% of C-suite positions presently held by women and the 29% who make up the levels feeding the C-suite, proves there is a large pool of suitable talent.

When examining the status of people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the sector, we see a different situation. If we take the state of Massachusetts, drop a pin in Cambridge and fan out towards the biotech inhabited suburbs, it’s clear that there are inadequate numbers of Black or African American or Hispanic professionals serving in the upper-echelons (C-suite, C-1, C-2) of life science companies. Collecting reliable data in the area of racial and ethnic diversity is notoriously difficult, partly because of companies not wishing to disclose their employee demographical data, and also because identifying race and ethnicity without the individual self-identifying is inherently assumptive and inaccurate. In the absence of such data, we can apply the ‘look test’ for validation of the thesis that people from workplace minorities are just not fulfilling these roles.

If there is to be a sustainable talent supply in the life science sector, then increasing the participation of racial and ethnic workplace minorities is a fundamental goal. It is incumbent upon the industry to be much more accessible in terms of professional opportunities for people right across our societies. Data suggests that the population in the US will see an increase in the proportional populations of Black, Hispanic and Asian people, while the Caucasian population is set to fall to less than half in little over 20 years (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). This demographical shift will place pressure on the talent supply unless companies move toward more diversified hiring and attract human resource from across the entire talent pool. It also indicates that the patient populations, which pharma and biotech companies are seeking to serve, will also be made up of different constituencies of race and ethnicities, and points to one explicit motive for the sector to be more diverse at all levels.

People of all racial and ethnicity profiles are distributed throughout the talent pipeline, but understanding where different racial groups are concentrated is crucial if a business is to introduce interventions that will enable people to thrive and advance. For example, we know that Black or African American people participate in higher number in the early career stages of the pipeline but fall away dramatically in the senior ranks, whereas Asians fare much better in senior leadership. We also know that proportionally, Black or African American people are more likely to be found in larger companies than start-ups. Better understanding this fragmented picture means a bespoke solution optimised for each group can be introduced to improve their participation at all career levels, including the most senior.  Although many similarities exist with gender equality, there are vital differences, and so prescribing solutions to race which have been transposed from tackling gender diversity will have limited effect. Likewise, adopting universal approaches that are intended as a ‘catch-all’ for any diversity, will be shown to be ineffectual.

Fig 1. – Percentage of total US population by race.

Fig. 2 – Historical and Future percentage of the immigrant population of the US by race.

There are, of course, many situations where we’re tackling gender and racial inequality simultaneously by bringing intersectionality to the workplace. Widespread academic research tells us that intersectionality has a profound effect on inclusion. We know women and men, irrespective of race, are experiencing the workplace differently, with women consistently reporting less favourable outcomes than men. Women from racial and ethnic minorities report even more extreme negative experiences and perspectives impacting their careers. Relative to their white colleagues, they are far more likely to express that there is bias in the recruitment process within their company; that their company’s performance review process is biased, that their own job performance is evaluated unfairly by others; and they are much more likely to reject opportunities at companies where diversity is not apparent.

This ‘double jeopardy’, where multiple disadvantaging factors intersect, is often overlooked when applying or implementing diversity initiatives in the workplace. When women of colour and white women have very different workplace interactions and experiences, the ‘solution’ to increase gender participation is often insufficiently tailored to heighten increased participation for women of all races.

Fig. 3 – Percentage point different between Bachelor’s Degree Attainment of women and Men Aged 25-34 by Race and Hispanic Origin – 1976 to 2015.

There are many other factors that can prejudice a person’s success, among them is their social standing or class, socioeconomic status, education, cultural identity or religion. The intersection of multiple factors can severely inhibit professional fulfilment, because, for many minorities, they are seen through the widest filter which ties them to stereotypical biases we implicitly harbour about social groups. And the individual also fears the threat of conforming to stereotype.

Education is a crucial factor when assessing the capacity of different racial and ethnic groups to occupy high-skilled professions. Data from the 2015 US census show an encouraging signal that women of colour aged between 25-34 (now part of the next generation of leaders) are attaining a degree education more than men of the same race.  This perhaps makes a further case for both racial and gender diversity as we think about the talent pool. In the workplace though, men continue to dominate across every racial group, thereby signalling that gender inequality cuts across lines of race and ethnicity.

If we zoom out to the macro view, nationally within the US, there remains a considerable delta between the academic achievement (Bachelors) of Asian (53.9%) and White (32.8%) populations relative to Black (22.5%) and Hispanic (15.5%) people, a disparity also observed at the advanced degree level.  In the figures below (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5), we see that when looking at the attainment of college degrees by White and Black students, as well as White and Latino, there are some significant differences. States recognised as offering significant employment in the life sciences, such as Massachusetts and California, are included in the ten states with the widest gaps for both comparator groups.

Fig. 4 – US States with the widest gap in college degrees (black and white populations)

States with widest gaps in college degrees (black/white)

Black White Gap
West Virginia 24% 48% 24 points
Wisconsin 22% 45% 23 points
North Carolina 28% 50% 22 points
Connecticut 29% 50% 21 points
Massachusetts 32% 53% 21 points
Minnesota 27% 47% 20 points
Colorado 34% 53% 19 points
Ohio 24% 42% 18 points
Nevada 24% 42% 18 points
California 33% 51% 18 points


Fig. 5 – US states with the widest gap in college degree (Latino and white)

States with widest gaps in college degrees (Latino/white)

Latino White Gap
California 17% 51% 34 points
Colorado 20% 53% 33 points
Massachusetts 22% 53% 30 points
Nevada 14% 42% 29 points
Connecticut 22% 50% 28 points
New York 21% 48% 27 points
Illinois 19% 45% 26 points
Virginia 18% 44% 26 points
North Carolina 24% 50 % 26 points
Vermont 18% 44% 26 points

Academic accomplishment is an essential factor in the participation of racial and ethnic minorities across the life sciences sector, an industry renowned for its high-barrier to entry based on education. Data generated in our 2017 study (Opening the Path to a Diverse Future<) of the Massachusetts life sciences sector, found that more than 30% of respondents have a Master’s degree and a similar number have a PhD (Fig.6). This very high education threshold is indicative of the requirements set for many jobs in the life sciences sector.

Fig. 6 – Academic Attainment across Study Respondents (Liftstream/MassBio – Opening a Path to a Diverse Future)

Elucidation of the educational gap is just one data set that shows business alone cannot tackle these issues. Unless people from the racial and ethnic minorities are emerging from education with equivalent educational qualification to the white or dominant population, the onus will heavily rest with business to tilt the balance in other ways, such that workplace minorities are prospering. Of course, the corporate sector must bear its portion of responsibility, and perhaps it can be more active in its engagement with public bodies, including educational institutions. There is undoubtedly a role for the public sector to inject money and resource, particularly as they look to increase the potential for social mobility among these underrepresented groups. This responsibility cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of private enterprise; otherwise, long-term progress will remain stunted.

Despite this need for policy-makers and public bodies to step up and actively address inequality, businesses cannot use this as an excuse for doing nothing. Whatever their time and financial horizons, there is a talent imperative to find people with highly diverse backgrounds and this should include the full participation of all racial and ethnic minorities. Their inclusion in our workforces demands that we take far more personalised approaches to hiring and retention. We have to revisit many aspects of the processes and systems we use to employ people, and ask if they are disadvantaging people or optimised for the people we seek. We cannot pretend that this is easy, but with good leadership and tailored equitable approaches, change can happen fast.

Today we’re facing a talent crunch in the life sciences industry and by further opening the door to talent from across society, we will introduce one part of a sustainable solution. It is time for life science companies to act on the issue of race and ethnicity and give equal opportunity to the immense talents that exist among these people.

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