Beyond Increments: Black Perspectives on Representation in the Life Sciences

Black Perspectives Collage

From Left: Lindsay Moore-Fields, Center for Healthcare Innovation, Dr. Yvonne Greenstreet, Alnylam and Dr. Stanley T. Lewis, A28 Therapeutics/courtesy of these companies

According to the most recent United States census, Black Americans make up 13.4% of the overall U.S. population. Yet this group makes up just 6% of the life sciences workforce, per BioSpace’s Diversity in Life Sciences: Through the Microscope: The Black Employee Experience report. This is in contrast to White/non-Hispanic individuals, who account for 60% of the overall population and 65% of the life sciences workforce, or Asian Americans who are represented in the industry to the tune of 19%, much higher than their overall 6% of the U.S. population.  

For this article, BioSpace spoke with several Black leaders working within the life sciences to get their thoughts on this representative disconnect and what they believe can be done to fix it. 

BSP: Black Americans make up just 6% of the life sciences workforce, but 13.4% of the U.S. population. What is the reason behind this disconnect?

Dr. Yvonne Greenstreet, CEO, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals

"We talk a lot in this industry about pipelines, and I think we can consider human capital similarly. Which is to say that a contributing factor to the number you cited is the lack of opportunity at each step of the way leading to the qualifications we look for in biotech. So, lack of diversity at the university level in various areas of study, as well as lack of access to STEM curriculum at earlier stages of education as well."

 Cary Claiborne_Adial Pharmaceuticals 2Cary Claiborne, COO, Adial Pharmaceuticals

“There is a lack of representation at the Board and C-level positions in life sciences companies and this is the level where key decisions are made. Companies have not made it a strategic priority. There are not enough role models in high-level positions that more junior level employees can look up to and aspire to become.”

Dr. Stanley T. Lewis, M.D., founder and CEO, A28 Therapeutics

“If you want to have diversity in your company, and you really value it, and you look at all the statistics…like women-led companies and companies that have diversity have better morale, better objectivity, better profits than companies that don't, yet we still have a problem with diversity, it suggests to me that there's something else more insidious and probably more personal that's going on…and I think that thing is fear.”

Lauren Powell_Takeda2 [square]Dr. Lauren R. Powell, MPA, Ph.D., VP, U.S. health equity & community wellness, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, USA

“Lack of diversity among the life sciences workforce is made up of several factors. This issue is not complex but more so a byproduct of racism and multiple systems of oppression. There are complex pathways that make it much harder for Black students to matriculate through the life sciences, graduate and assume life science roles. This is also connected to the history of this country.”

Any recent gains have been incremental. Based on analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center, the current 6% Black representation in the life sciences is up just 2% from 2016 and has remained stagnant since 2019.

BSP: What are the biggest challenges to achieving diversity & inclusion in the life sciences?

SL: “We like to think of the life sciences industry as a meritocracy, and in many ways, it is. But in many ways, the measuring stick is based on conformity to a mold. Minorities and women will always fall short of fitting into the mold of what is the innate qualities of others. If the hiring manager is consciously or unconsciously looking for male, pale and Yale, it will be hard for a black woman from an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] to compete. If you're not playing golf, your kids don’t go to the same school, you're not at the same church or synagogue, then you don't have those opportunities for proximity that ultimately result in understanding and growth in a way that fosters promotions.

BioSpace’s 2022 Salary Report highlighted a significant racial wage gap, with Black respondents reporting earnings that were 29% less than the earnings of White/Non-Hispanic employees. 

Yvonne Greenstreet_AlnylamYG: "I think the biggest challenge might lay with the momentum needed to actually affect change. We not only need to acknowledge and discuss the issue, but we need to come together as an industry and put into place policies that move the needle. At Alnylam, we’re looking to lead the charge within our sector. We engage with companies who back in 2020 adopted the MassBio CEO Pledge for a More Equitable and Inclusive Life Sciences Industry. As a signatory, we are committed to addressing injustice globally through comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within six areas: leadership and executive culture; inclusive company culture; recruitment; retention and development; accountability and sustainability; and supplier diversity."

BSP: Have you personally experienced discrimination that you would attribute to your race?

LP: “Yes, I have absolutely experienced challenges due to racial discrimination. I’ll share a short story. I was getting on an elevator in a state building and for those who don’t know, there is a precedent to address people who have a doctorate by ‘Dr. XXX.’ In this case, a white male colleague got on the elevator and said, ‘Good morning, Lauren.’ A white woman proceeds to get on the elevator, and he addressed her as ‘Dr. XXX.’ Essentially, he refused to call me by my credentials and did so very publicly every time I encountered him. This lack of respect created a culture and set a precedent that made it much harder for me to do my job.”

Greg Davenport_TFF Pharmaceuticals Greg Davenport, Ph.D., VP of government and strategic initiatives, TFF Pharmaceuticals

“Back in 2005, some colleagues and I were looking to start a biotech company…we really were focusing on mRNA, siRNA, all these RNA viruses, and this is back in 2005, before COVID and Moderna and Pfizer. Each one of us was highly educated. (The founders completed medical degrees and postdocs at highly-regarded HBCUs, along with Princeton and Yale, and held prized internships). We pulled together a very stellar who's who of scientists as the advisory board, and we were looking to raise about $5 million, but we couldn't raise the money. Was it because the technology was just too early, or was it attributed to (the fact that) we were three young African Americans and they didn't want to take a risk?”

Lindsay Moore-Fields_CHI2Lindsay Moore-Fields, program manager, Center for Healthcare Innovation

“I would say…that systemic racism gets intertwined, unfortunately, in industry and higher education. There have been challenges of just feeling like you don't belong in a space and fighting that imposter syndrome. I have had professors, or people who have been involved in my academic journey, kind of question choices that I've made in terms of pursuing STEM careers. I do feel like part of that is linked to one, the fact that I'm a woman, and two, the racial element. Traditionally, space wasn't made for black women within healthcare or some STEM-heavy spaces, so now when pursuing these spaces, we face that external extra check of 'oh, are you sure you want to do this?’”

BSP: What tangible steps can the industry take to improve Black representation in the life sciences?

The Center for Healthcare Innovation recently conducted a focus group with Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students and early-stage professionals focusing on building bridges with the next generation of biopharma professionals.

LMF: “They shared that a big piece was the engagement and recruitment part of it, and not knowing the industry exists, or not knowing opportunities within the industry. (Instead of graduating and suddenly needing to find a job) they wanted to have that opportunity to explore while they were in school.

“I think it's really important to have role models and mentors, or even just to see someone who looks like you working at an organization and succeeding because you want to feel like ‘I can fit in this role.’”

GD: “When it boils down to it, it's about exposure, opportunity and inclusion and diversity. You can't force companies or individuals, but I think you can do things to give them incentives.”

On August 6, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved new Nasdaq rules requiring publicly traded companies to meet certain race and gender targets, such as having at least one female director and one Board member identifying as either a racial minority or a member of the LGBTQ community.

Schond Greenway_MindMed [square]Schond Greenway, CFO, MindMed

“Like the ongoing activities that financial institutions have adopted regarding [their] intentional efforts to be inclusive, the life sciences industry may want to adopt similar approaches to increase the awareness of career opportunities within the field. Additionally, other avenues such as career counselors steering kids that have promise, beginning at the high school level, toward the sector, efforts to tap talent at HBCUs and developing more organizations that provide access to role models and mentorship…is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Dr. Owen Garrick_CVS HealthDr. Owen Garrick, M.D., chief medical officer, clinical trial services at CVS Health

“My sense is that the acquisition of talent is always successful, but it’s really the retention and the growth of that talent…. the sponsorship. Especially when we think about leadership opportunities, the ability for folks of color, Black and African Americans, to be afforded stretch assignments and career opportunities that aren't necessarily in their wheelhouse and then being supported to have a chance to succeed. When companies have mission-critical projects such as a key strategic acquisition or a partnership, where you have these ad hoc committees or groups forming, really take a look at having Blacks as part of that group. These successes and those opportunities lead to longer permanent leadership positions.

LP: “We must create more entry-level roles and hire from HBCUs and other Black and Brown networks that exist, in addition to creating ongoing internships and fellowship opportunities. These networks play a critical role in building futures for diverse talent in the industry and continue to advance the future of inclusivity through science. We must shift the onus and encourage the industry to get out of its comfort zone of only wanting to hire and recruit from Ivy League schools. There is plenty of Black and Brown talent available. Ultimately, it’s the industry that must do more.”

In BioSpace’s 2022 Diversity & Inclusion survey, Black individuals make up only 11% of executive-level positions. 

Closing Thoughts: The Way Forward

LMF: “I feel like right now, we're in a really unique time period where we've had a pandemic and then we've had this moment of racial reckoning in this country where people are committed to equity and diversity and inclusion and they are becoming buzz words in the national conversation. I really think it's going be telling how the industry reacts in the next five years: is that commitment going to still be there?”

Stanley Lewis_A28 Therapeutics3SL: “I believe that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. When given the opportunity, Blacks have excelled in all manner of sports and entertainment. The same will be true in life sciences and business as opportunities are created. And just as in sports and entertainment, the field of life sciences will grow and evolve in very dynamic ways. We will move beyond our current plateaus and incremental advances to experience breakthroughs only made possible by introducing diversity. Diversity drives innovation.”

OG: “Within the industry, non-Blacks supporting Blacks is really the thing we can do something about. The infrastructure issues within the country are a little more challenging, but certainly focusing on, once you do get those underrepresented numbers within your organization, ‘how do I make every effort to retain, grow and support them?”

YG: "As a company and/or industry leaders, we need to communicate, internally and externally, our metrics on these matters in order to hold ourselves accountable and track change over time. We need to get our employees on board with this as the right approach, not just morally but strategically. We need to start, and understand we won’t change everything overnight, but we will move forward."

To read the complete report on the Black life sciences professional experience in the workplace click here

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