DEIB Evolves As Criticism, Changing Attitudes Continue

Diverse biopharma employees in lab

Pictured: Diverse group of biopharma employees collaborate in lab/iStock, Jacob Wackerhausen

Just days after the latest mainstream media article highlighting criticism of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, the new BioSpace DEIB report showed life science professionals are prioritizing diversity less when changing employers. 

The importance of diversity when considering new employment has declined across all genders, races and age groups, according to the State of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging in Life Sciences report. In 2022, 85% of respondents agreed it’s an important factor, compared to 68% this year. The most significant decline was among white/non-Hispanic men. In 2022, 82% rated diversity as important, compared to 45% this year. 

Even so, DEIB is crucial at biopharma companies, according to RoMaine Jones-Wise, a senior consultant at Exude Human Capital.  

“If there’s not representation from all generations or cultures or gender identities, there is a chance that you’re going to miss a key opportunity to be very profitable, because you don’t have all the right voices in the room, and there’s a blind spot that you’re overlooking,” she told BioSpace

Clinical trials have been of particular interest when it comes to diversity in biopharma, with the FDA releasing draft guidance on the matter in 2022 and President Biden signing an executive order this year on advancing women’s health research and innovation. 

Whatever the employee sentiment toward DEIB in life science and other industries, it’s not going away, Jones-Wise said. It’s taking on a new identity. 

The Evolution of DEIB

Shelton Goode, Ph.D., president and CEO of Icarus Consulting, told BioSpace that initially, DEIB was a pure diversity effort to increase representation of underrepresented groups. He noted those efforts have expanded to the work environment to make sure it’s not only physically safe and secure but also psychologically safe, especially for women and the LGBTQ+ community.  

“These efforts have resulted in more voices being heard so that the employee who has been with the company 30 days feels as empowered and emboldened to contribute and offer up ideas as the person who has been there 30 years,” Goode said. “That is the result of intentionality.” 

Still, not everyone is embracing DEIB. Anika Rahman, CEO of the National Diversity Council, told BioSpace there’s been intensified backlash associated with the June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, which effectively ended considering race as part of the college admissions process. Rahman noted that while the decision’s impact was meant to be limited, some see it as a litmus test of the country and where DEIB is headed, with it becoming more politicized. 

She also echoed Goode’s assessment of what DEIB is now. Rahman said that although opponents have mischaracterized it as a very narrow set of issues focused on people of color, it also involves other groups, including women, the LGBTQ+ community, people who are neurodiverse, people with disabilities, veterans and multigenerational workforces

“And so, if you take that intersectional perspective, DEI really benefits the majority of the country and the world, to be honest,” Rahman said. 

Why Employees Are Speaking Out More Often

Goode noted that while overall, favorable employee perceptions regarding DEIB have declined based on what he’s seen with clients and in Icarus Consulting’s research, he doesn’t think the perceptions themselves have changed.  

“I think the perceptions have always been there,” Goode explained as he focused on the people sharing them. “I think they feel more empowered and, ironically, safe to express their true observations, thoughts and feelings. I say ironically because part of the efforts around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is to create a safe space for employees to share what they are actually thinking, feeling and experiencing, authentically and transparently.” 

Employees feel emboldened and empowered to speak their minds because of the DEIB discussions taking place in mainstream media, Goode said, citing a May 5 Washington Post article as an example. The story covered how companies are changing their DEI tactics. It opened by sharing that Eli Lilly and Company’s annual shareholder letter last year referenced DEI 48 times compared to zero times in this year’s letter.  

Addressing Employee Pushback

If companies are experiencing employee pushback on their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts, Rahman recommended they explain DEIB itself and the business case for it, including ROI.  

“I feel like the negative employee sentiment is coming from a lack of understanding of DEIB, a lack of understanding of how this enhances profitability and enables you to do your job better,” Rahman said. 

Goode agreed that DEIB benefits organizations in multiple ways.  

“I would say No. 1, you get more input when it comes to making decisions, solving problems, resolving conflicts and just open communication,” he said. “You just get better results. You get better results from individuals, you get better results from teams, you get better results at the company, period.” 

That said, Goode advised that the No. 1 way to address employee pushback is to continue to provide a safe space for employees to share what they’re thinking and feeling. He recommended acknowledging their feelings, showing empathy and communicating that DEIB initiatives don’t mean decreasing anyone’s opportunities or filling quotas. 

How Companies Are Rebranding DEIB Programs

Goode noted that while some companies are hitting pause or taking a step back on DEIB, others are starting or moving forward with programs.  

Jones-Wise said she’s seeing a lot more organizations wanting to be intentional about having DEIB initiatives and inclusive practices in place. She’s working with several clients to establish DEIB committees or councils and employee resource groups.  

“I’m seeing an uptick in employees trying to give space for all of the voices to be heard, even if everybody’s not all the way bought into this initiative of diversity,” she said. 

Goode, Jones-Wise and Rahman all noted companies are moving away from using “DEIB” or “DEI” in their programs. Jones-Wise shared that she’s seeing many organizations roll out programming names that tie to their core values, such as Choose Compassion or All Voices Matter. Goode said most of his clients are branding programs around change management, culture change, value alignment and organizational effectiveness. 

When it comes to what the programs focus on, Rahman shared she’s seeing companies put more emphasis on inclusion and belonging. Jones-Wise echoed that, saying she’s seen a lot of employers emphasize inclusion: “How do I become a more inclusive workplace? How do I establish a sense of belonging for my employees to show up and be their truly authentic self? What does that look like? How do I model those behaviors?” 

The Bottom Line

When it comes to DEIB, Jones-Wise said if companies can create work environments where people feel they can trust their leaders and there’s psychological safety, the organizations will receive a major return on investment that includes reductions in employee turnover and stress.  

“There’s truly a benefit for organizations to focus on inclusive work cultures and acts of belonging because it’s going to allow people to come to work and not have to mask who they are, which on top of an already strenuous job can be taxing and exhausting,” she said. “So, it’s really caring for the whole person.” 

Angela Gabriel is content manager, life sciences careers, at BioSpace. You can reach her at angela.gabriel@biospace.com and follow her on LinkedIn

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