While pharmaceutical companies have been talking about diversifying their brand teams for years, the last 15 months have increased the urgency of these efforts to new highs. 

Patients, consumers, employees and investors are rightly clamoring for better BIPOC representation — and transparency — at every level. They’re also looking for proof that companies are hiring, training and promoting more women, members of the LGBTQ community, Asian Americans and individuals with disabilities.

The pandemic has further upped the need for more diverse brand teams in and around life sciences. Does anyone think there isn’t a link between America’s gaping health disparities and the mostly white worlds of pharma, medicine and marketing?

Industry support for Black Lives Matter has been widespread and well publicized, and pharma companies claim to have pushed their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts into overdrive. You might think, as a result, they’d be willing to talk about it. Yet most dodged questions posed by MM+M, describing their DE&I initiatives as works in progress.

“We don’t feel comfortable giving you half-baked answers,” confided a spokesperson for one top-20 organization. “Could you follow up in a few months? Hopefully, we will have more details,” responded another industry heavyweight. Others steered us to web pages featuring the usual platitudes.

DE&I experts say pharma companies may be right to be bashful: Good intentions haven’t gotten the industry very far. While publicly acknowledging past hiring deficiencies and current challenges represents a step in the right direction, it tiptoes toward excuse-making. And with stakeholder groups coiled and ready to call BS, “We’re trying, but it’s so hard!” is an unacceptable answer.

“Pharma companies have a lot of fear of negative publicity about DE&I efforts,” says Paula Swain, EVP and head of human resources at Incyte.

Incyte created a formal inclusion team last year, putting in place deliberate initiatives and giving itself up to three years to effect significant change. But, Swain notes, “This is why so many companies are reluctant to speak out, because we’re still not where we want to be. These problems aren’t going to change overnight.”

Marketing and sales teams have had an especially hard time meeting their diversity goals, Swain acknowledges. But at Incyte at least, it hasn’t been for a lack of attention to the problem at hand.

“We’re starting to build relationships with organizations that specialize in diverse hires, including national sales and MBA networks. We’re sponsoring more career fairs. We’ve stepped up our presence at historically Black colleges and universities,” Swain says.

While Incyte has seen an increase in the number of applications and subsequent hires, “It’s still not easy,” she continues. “Everyone’s looking for the same people.”

Here are some of the other factors complicating pharma’s attempts to diversify its brand teams.

Overt racism is real: Research from the Society for Human Resources Management found that, across all industries during the last year, a third of employees faced unfair treatment at work based on race and ethnicity. Even worse, more than 40% of Black workers said they have experienced such mistreatment during the past five years. More than 25% of Asians and 21% of Latinos said they have been treated unfairly in the same period.

It’s ugly. Earlier this year, Merck reported it was investigating two separate noose incidents at a vaccine manufacturing plant in North Carolina. Such events are a stark reminder that hate and intimidation are an integral part of many workplaces. Clearly pharma isn’t immune.

Institutional racism is real: “There are all these subtle messages that young African-American professionals get that tell them they’re not quite good enough,” Merck executive chairman Ken Frazier said in a recent Harvard Business Review interview. “We have to have the psychological armor to defend ourselves against the racism that’s all around us.”

Frazier cited his career as a case in point. Following his recent retirement, the Fortune 500 has just four Black CEOs.

Companies rely on flawed recruiting methods: Many organizations are coming to terms with inherently biased approaches. Take Incyte, which employs about 2,000 employees. “Most are mid-career professionals,” says Swain. “We’ve been very proud that about 70% of our employees are hired through referrals from other people who work here. But as we dive into this, we realize that people tend to refer people who look like them.”

That creates a disproportionately white applicant pool. “I wish we’d known that earlier, because that’s been holding us back,” she adds.

To begin to remedy the situation, Incyte’s inclusion team has more closely examined retention and advancement as steps toward more diverse referrals. “We have to make people feel they are more a part of the company, and educate the whole organization about diversity efforts,” Swain says.

Pharma has transparency baggage: Whether around clinical trials or pricing schemes, pharma stubbornly resists transparency — and that’s true about its DE&I efforts as well. Johnson & Johnson has donated $100 million to address health inequities over the next five years and set as a target a 50% increase in leadership roles for BIPOC individuals. Yet it recently tried to squirm out of a shareholder request for a third-party audit on how its policies impact minorities. Ultimately, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ruled it had to comply. (J&J didn’t respond to a request for comment from MM+M.)

Clinical trials remain the industry’s Achilles’ heel. Pharma knows it has a diversity problem in the clinical-research realm, and has struggled for decades to diversify trials. But COVID-19 blew the whistle on just how biased research continues to be, bringing the issue of health disparities very much into the spotlight.

Incyte is attempting to devise better research approaches. Just as COVID-19 outreach efforts tapped into less conventional pathways, such as community centers and churches, it broadened Incyte’s thinking around what may be possible, Swain says.

“We started thinking about barriers in new ways, such as transportation. How can we help people physically get to trials?” Swain explains. “We’re trying to come up with creative ways to reach populations that aren’t as excited about participating.” 

Standing Out

Some pharma companies have thrived on the DE&I front amid the COVID-19 chaos. The journal Science, which rates employers every year, points to Incyte, Bluebird Bio and Regeneron as companies that receive accolades from employees on their diversity efforts. Global generics giant Biocon, which reports that a third of its scientific employees are women, similarly earns praise.

These and other industry-wide efforts are likely to intensify as more companies realize that inequity isn’t just wrong — it’s expensive. A new Society for Human Resources Management study estimates that inequity-related employee turnover has cost U.S. organizations up to $172 billion over the past five years. Absenteeism related to anxiety and frustration around experiencing or witnessing mistreatment may add another $54 billion. Lost productivity tacks on an additional $59 billion.

While the industry is far from where it needs to be, some companies believe real progress isn’t out of immediate reach. “We’ve got a few years of work ahead of us, but we’re making good progress,” Swain says. “We look forward to a point where we can say our numbers internally are representative of the whole community.”