Latinx Employees Face Challenges Succeeding in the Life Sciences Industry
From Left: Carolina Alarco (Latinos in Bio), Rogelio Braceras, M.D. (Jazz Pharmaceuticals) and Mónica Guerrero Vázquez (Centro SOL)/courtesy of these organizations.
In BioSpace’s soon-to-be-released Diversity in Life Sciences: Current Perspectives report, 85% of respondents from the life sciences community claim diversity is an important factor when considering a new employment opportunity. But for many in the Hispanic and Latino/Latinas (Latinx) community, that’s hard to believe.
Latinx individuals make up 18.5% of the U.S. population, but only 8.4% of those working in the life sciences industry. Though this ethnic group has seen improvement in hiring, there are still many issues that impact their underrepresented numbers in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
“They’ve [the life sciences industry] got to put their money where their mouth is and actually do something,” Dan Sfera, co-founder of Latinos in Clinical Research (LICR), told BioSpace. “We've given solutions, actionable solutions, not very costly solutions and it doesn't seem like they want those solutions. They just want the appearance of contributing to the solutions. So, the ball is in their court."
Origins and Challenges
The pool of potential Latinx life sciences employees is expanding. Latinx was already the largest minority group in the country, achieving that mark in 2001. By 2060, their population will reach 111 million, representing 28% of the overall populace according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But having a growing population doesn’t guarantee there is a correlation in life sciences candidates.
One issue is a lack of trust by the Latinx community toward the life sciences industry as well as the government, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated that feeling.
“With Tuskegee and things of that nature, you have the pandemic and the information that's coming out about the vaccines now and how it was forced on people. It's just that there's no trust in the industry,” Chris Sauber of LICR and site director of Breakthrough Clinal Trials, told BioSpace.
Mónica Guerrero Vázquez is the executive director for Centro SOL, an outreach organization of Johns Hopkins University whose goal is to advance educational opportunities for Latinx high school students in Baltimore. She told BioSpace that the mistrust the Latinx community has toward the health industry can be misinterpreted as not caring about obtaining health or life sciences jobs.
“The immigrant communities and in general, communities of color and marginalized communities are being displaced by the system. But that doesn't mean they don't want to become doctors, don't want to be scientists. They want to, they just don't know how to because it's 10 times or 50 times more difficult to get to that point," she said.
Another issue at the grassroots level is a perception that Latinx individuals don’t fit in with the culture of the life sciences industry.
“I think it's because the pharmaceutical industry as a whole seems like an elite kind of industry and sometimes people have the wrong idea about it, thinking that only people with white coats can be part of it. I think that's one of the first perceptions that the majority of populations, especially the Hispanic community [has],” Monica Cuitiva, LICR co-founder said.
The Latinx community also lacks awareness of job opportunities in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors.
“They don't know these roles exist. For example, in my community, clinical research is still creating [jobs] and people don't understand there's this whole industry that exists and various roles you can go into because nobody talks about it. There's no educational information in junior highs, high schools and colleges, so they're not going to go into an industry if they don't know about it,” Judy Galindo, co-founder of LICR and co-owner of Sun Valley Research Center said.
“I don't know if there are challenges in terms of companies somehow interfering with the hiring of my community, the Hispanic community. I think the Latino community is not so much aware of opportunities that pharmaceutical companies have to offer,” Dr. Rogelio Braceras, M.D., vice president and global head of medical affairs at Jazz Pharmaceuticals told BioSpace.
Guerrero Vázquez said that sometimes the biggest challenge is overcoming being told you can’t do something.
“Our vision is to diversify the workforce in healthcare sciences, and really everywhere. But the way to diversify the workforce is not to tell the youth you can't do it, don't think about it, but to expose them to more things, to give them more options because that's going to promote advocacy. That's where they're going to see where the needs are, where the barriers are and become the advocates for the future.”
One area improving the prospects for Latinx individuals wanting to make a career in the life sciences is a college education.
Of the 73,968 biological and biomedical science degrees/certificates awarded nationally during the 2002-03 academic year, only 4,057 of those were to Hispanic/Latino students. That’s a 5% ratio when Latinx made up 13.3% of the population. By the 2019-20 class year, there were 163,768 biological and biomedical science degrees/certificates awarded at postsecondary institutions, of which 22,797 went to Hispanic/Latino students (14%) while Latinx made up 18.5% of the populace according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The improved numbers of Latinx individuals entering college is even more impressive when factored against the high percentage who are living in poverty. While Latinx made up just 13% of the population in 2002, 24.7% were in poverty situations. In 2019, Latinx made up 18.5% of the populace but 28.1% were living in poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Starting when they are very young, they don't have the opportunity to access services that they cannot apply for. They cannot register for things [like] having reliable internet and computers at home,” Guerrero Vázquez said.
Another great untapped group in the Latinx community finding it challenging to get into college is undocumented immigrants.
“We are trying to advocate for a policy to allow undocumented students who were getting their certifications in healthcare fields like nurses are conditions to be able to get employed, to be able to get their certification regardless of immigration status,” Guerrero Vázquez said.
Yet for those Latinx high school students who have the ambition for high-end positions in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, it’s not just about getting into a college, but what college.
“In general, because there are Latinos that do attend Ivy League and other top schools, the majority of Latinos are coming out of community colleges or state colleges, so it is hard for them to compete with students that are coming out of MIT, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Northeastern University, Boston College, etc. That’s the first hurdle when competing for a position in the life sciences,” Carolina Alarco, co-founder of Latinos in Bio and principal of Bio Strategy Advisors LLC, told BioSpace.
Some top-tier schools are being proactive in increasing the diversity of their student populations. Johns Hopkins’ Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion program reported that 21.9% of their 2021 fall undergraduates are Latinx.
Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies encourage undocumented academically qualified students to apply. Harvard’s class of 2025 is 12.5% Latinx. But the university's admission policies are being challenged by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions. They are suing the school over civil rights law violations for considering race in their admission policies. The case has reached the Supreme Court which will hear arguments later this year.
Educational opportunities don’t just have to come from schools. They can come from grassroots organizations and the life sciences sector too.
“Besides providing free education [to the LICR curriculum], we also created programs for those that want to join the industry and are looking to have a practical education that takes them where they want to go in the industry,” Cuitiva said.
“From a pharmaceutical standpoint, we were very mindful in terms of translating different educational materials into Spanish,” Braceras shared. “That engagement with the community, from a jobs perspective and internship opportunities, those are great avenues for people to really get their foot in the door. In fact, a vast majority of those interns are the ones that have the opportunity to do a fellowship and become an employee in the long term. That has been a good avenue for Hispanics to get into the pharmaceutical industry.”
“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living - if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” - Denzel Washington
The greatest consensus among the people and organizations BioSpace interviewed was the importance of mentoring. Whether it’s in school or at different levels of the life sciences industry, if there aren’t mentoring programs already available, then they need to be created.
“We have certain programs that we're going to be launching soon,” Alarco said. “There is a mentorship program for early-career Latinos in the life sciences that is going to kick off in the summer of this year. Then in Q3, we're going to launch our C-suite Ready Program.”
A good mentor serves many roles; advisor, coach, teacher, role model and confidante.
“Hispanic leaders can show their journey through their lives in the industry. That will serve as an example and I will say, as an inspiration to younger leaders in their organization,” Braceras said. “We want to make sure that as Hispanics, once we get into the organization, we feel embraced, we feel that we belong, we feel that we have an impact and that we're not alone. We want to bring people together to showcase that it's a very strong community and of course, the goal is to grow it every year.”
Guerrero Vázquez concurred.
“Mentorship is super important," she said. “If you are working in a certain field, how can you communicate to others about what you do? Why do you do what you do? Why is it important for you? How is that impacting the community and the society where you live? Then, transfer that to the young people.”
Galindo added, “I think I speak for most of us [at LICR], we've had people reach out to us outside of their demos and clinical research to ask us advice on things they can do to get into the industry, how they can get a job at our office and things like that. We do provide that guidance."
Some other organizations focused on mentoring the Latinx community in life sciences careers are Latinas in STEM, Científico Latino and the National Association of Latino Healthcare Executives. But according to Sfera, more mentors are needed.
“Everyone's going to reach their limit of who they can mentor. But if we get more in and everyone does their part, it all eventually resolves itself. This is not a three-year solution. This is a 30-year solution,” he said.
A Difficult Climb
Once in the door, Latinx employees face other obstacles that can hinder their chances for advancement. Sometimes that can simply be how they sound.
“I think the accent is a possibility,” Cuitiva said. “Sometimes people probably feel the fear to apply to different job opportunities because of that.”
Alarco pointed to other difficulties Latinx employees face in terms of promotions.
“Once they enter the industry, Latinos have to perform at the highest level. They have to become overachievers if they want to compete against their peers. Under equal performance standards, Latinos should have equal wages and equal opportunities for promotion to get to the highest levels of the organization. That sometimes is unequal, either because there is a lack of mentoring, sponsoring, or maybe because Latinos don't network the way their white peers do.”
Others said that companies have barriers they need to take down in order to improve the integration of Latinx individuals into life sciences jobs.
“They're treading carefully; too many lawyers at the corporate level,” Sfera said. “[For example], if you're talking about Pfizer or IQVIA, before they can do anything actionable, they have to get like five to 10 attorneys to sign off on it. I have an attorney as well. If I ask him anything, I already know the answer: it's ‘no’, because he's not concerned with me, expanding my capabilities. He's concerned with protecting me from ruining things. I think it's the same thing, just on a macro scale, which is why we need organizations like ours.”
Now a vice president at a major pharmaceutical company, Braceras talked about the challenges he faced climbing the corporate ladder.
“I think that for me, it was a learning curve. There's a scientific element to the job, but there's also a leadership element that is important. For me, that was an initial challenge…I call it a challenge and an opportunity at the same time because that allowed me to attend Duke’s leadership programs. Also, at Harvard Business School, they really helped me a lot and gave me the tools to be an effective leader.”
As Latinx individuals look to move up the ladder within their companies, they’re also trying to close a wage gap. Latinx employees in the life sciences sector are earning approximately $30 000 less than their white colleagues and $18,000 less than Asian workers, according to BioSpace’s 2022 U.S. Life Sciences Salary Report.
Alarco sees this inequality in earnings as having a long-term detrimental impact.
“What keeps me up at night is that, if the Latino population continues to grow as they are in the United States and if this is going to become the new majority by the year 2050 or beyond, this new majority will actually have a huge wealth gap because young Latinos are not having access to creating generational wealth. It concerns me for the future of the United States.”
While many issues need to be addressed to improve opportunities for the Latinx community to gain entrance and thrive in the life sciences industry, there is considerably more optimism being expressed here.
“There's always room for improvement, but I've been in the industry for over 20 years now and I would say that the awareness has increased in terms of pharmaceutical and biotech companies being a viable career,” Braceras said. “There are diseases that unfortunately affect the Hispanic community to a large extent, so being part of that journey of finding potential cures or solutions and medications to alleviate those conditions is extremely important.”
Alarco said, “I think the more we get these messages across to the people that are making the decisions in terms of board membership and executive appointments in the biopharma companies, and the more we encourage them to look at their companies’ internal metrics, they're going to find out that they are tracking behind in diversity and they're going to make adjustments."
Galindo agreed. “I do see a change. It's going to happen. It's going to take a long time as we know these things happen very slowly, [but] somewhere in the next 10 to 20 years, we'll definitely see a lot more changes.”
Guerrero Vázquez said the key is to keep building bridges. “That is done by participating in the systems and the processes that we have. We [the Life Sciences] have wonderful institutions [that are] very strong, very prestigious. There is no reason for us to say they [Latinx] cannot come in. We have to let them in.”