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Is diversity a dirty word now? Don’t let that happen

DEI is damaged but the principles behind it haven’t gone away

By C. Simone Fishburn, Editor in Chief

March 9, 2024 1:49 AM UTC

BioCentury & Getty Images

The gloves are off on DEI. Naysayers are saying: I told you the whole thing was a sham. Some are delighting in the potential demise of policies designed to correct imbalances in opportunities for people in historically under-represented groups, while others are more somber about the hit to a well-intentioned movement that went badly off the rails. A reminder on International Women’s Day above all: it’s important not to throw diversity out with the DEI bathwater.

Since the shameful congressional testimony of the presidents of Harvard University, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania in December, and the alarming events sweeping across U.S. campuses, the institutional practice of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has come under a glaring spotlight. Not without cause — DEI policies in universities have, it turns out, been driven by a world view along binary axes that allow only aggressors and victims, the privileged and the disenfranchised.

DEI has long had its doubters, generally aligned with pushback against initiatives such as affirmative action that they argue unfairly tip the odds and betray free market principles. The explosion following the testimony, however, centered on how DEI has been executed, rather than what it aimed to achieve, and brought a much wider catchment of disappointed believers in the movement’s aims.

The irony is that the DEI movement in universities has had little diversity of thought, and that it allows for little context — the word that became the downfall of two of those university presidents. Most of the focus, rightly, has been on where antisemitism fits into this paradigm. But gender equity has been caught up in this mess too. Men are on the “privileged” side, regardless of their economic circumstance or background. The hard lines have laid open the untenable inconsistencies, not to mention hypocrisy, of the movement. While women were until now on the “victim” side, a double-standard became very clear with the abandonment of support for Israeli women subjected to horrific violence on October 7.

And while the trigger for this upheaval was the Israel-Hamas war, its ramifications go well beyond. The business world, including biotech, has its own reckoning of how to handle its policies in the wake of this backlash.

So now the question is whether the DEI movement has dug its own grave. The anti-woke brigade will likely dance on that grave, but the legacy of DEI deserves better than that. Women, people of color and the LGBTQ community will be the big losers if there is a groundswell against DEI without a return to its guiding mission. 

A good idea badly executed

The core idea behind DEI policies was to create a more level playing field for women and minority groups who have traditionally been shut out of the programs, jobs and opportunities that pave the way to positions of leadership, power and influence across all sectors of society. Almost all major pharmas and many biotechs have signed on in some form to the principles, creating programs and DEI executives to move hiring practices in a more equitable direction.

And while there’s been tremendous progress, it’s only the start. There are fewer statistics for minority and LGBTQ communities, but the numbers for women make the case. 

BioCentury identified over 400 women CEOs in biopharma in 2022 — a number far higher than many stakeholders anticipated. However, with the total number of biotechs in the thousands, that’s still a miserable minority.

A survey by PIR international of 183 biotechs in the EU and U.K. reported that the proportion of women Chairs had increased to 25% in 2023 from 12% in 2022. A doubling is good. But 25% is not.

And among pharmas, there’s been some significant C-suite appointments in R&D, with five of the top positions held by women. Roche hired Aviv Regev as EVP of Roche’s Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED) in 2020. Fiona Marshall became president, biomedical research at Novartis AG in 2022, and Jane Grogan head of Research at Biogen Inc. in 2023. AstraZeneca plc hired both Susan Galbraith, as EVP oncology R&D in 2021, and Sharon Barr, as EVP biopharmaceuticals R&D in 2023.

At the same time, there have been 13 CEO pharma appointments since the start of 2021, all male.

Those women are all outstanding researchers with unimpeachable resumes. At the CEO level, there are for sure many equally qualified women waiting in the wings. So why the difference?

Diversity beyond DEI

At a minimum, the DEI concept needs to be reimagined. It’s more than a rebranding exercise.

Diversity is imperative for creating stronger business. There is a wealth of data on better performance from more diverse teams. Equity is unarguably a goal that all free societies should strive for, aiming for equal outcomes as a result of equal opportunities. Inclusion is an obvious benefit to any organization — who can argue against inclusiveness? But that mix of goals and the orthodoxy behind it has failed DEI’s founding principles and with that, its principal stakeholders.

Within the business world, there are complaints that DEI policies have reduced the focus on merit, resulting in hires that did not pan out. Conversely, in and beyond biopharma, a host of Chief Diversity Officers hired in 2020-21 have left their roles, according to Bianca Coulter, CEO of Coulter Partners executive search firm. At the 2023 BioEquity Europe conference she said that despite increasing the number of “diverse” candidates on the hiring slate, there was no real ability for those executives to effect change as there was not a culture of equity in those companies.

Inadvertently, through bad execution, the DEI movement has insufficiently delivered on its objectives, while fueling the era of grievances that defines the growing wedge in society.

I have heard, many times, complaints from people they have no chance of being given a board seat or being appointed to the C-suite because they are men, or white women, and don’t fit their imagined quotas or DEI directives.

The numbers belie that. It’s still a man’s world in the C-suite and on boards. There is still a very low percentage of people of color in executive teams. At some point, candidates need to accept that even though they are highly qualified, they may not be the best fit. And they need to acknowledge that there is value in diversity itself. Bringing a different voice into company management carries benefits beyond the metrics on a resume.

Still, requiring a diverse slate of candidates is meaningless if it doesn’t result in hires on merit, and hiring qualified individuals is useless if there isn’t an internal culture that empowers them and values different voices.

On The BioCentury Show, Rob Perez, founder and chairman of Life Science Cares Inc., referred to environments that make it difficult for individuals who are “different” from the norm to speak up and provide value. “In meetings, if you’re not different, chances are you just react,” said Perez. “You say your point of view. When you’re different, you tend to have this whole filtering system that says, ‘if I say it this way, how’s that going to be perceived?’ So there’s a whole amount of energy and processing that goes on, that takes time, takes energy, and can be exhausting over a career.”

In a sentence that will resonate with many who have been in that position, Perez added: “If you talk to the people who have been different in that setting for a long time — it’s the women in the boardroom, it’s people of color in the management suite — they really relate to this “energy tax” that you have to pay when you’re different.”

The solution is not to abandon diversity as an imperative, but to lean in to culture change that will eliminate that energy tax and properly harness all the voices round the table.

The future of diversity should not be bound up in the fate of DEI. It’s too easy to give way to the “I told you so” crowd and revert to the idea that worrying about diversity is a distraction, and that balance will come organically without dedicated effort.

It’s harder to chart a path that’s not prescribed by a rule book, and instead ask the tough questions of whom to hire, when to take a chance on a different face or voice, and how to foster a culture that embraces adverse opinions.

It’s time to allow for nuance — people don’t boil down to their gender or ethnicity; the more hiring managers, and rejected candidates, can see individuals as multidimensional, with an array of experiences and expertise, the faster we can move beyond those binary axes.

Women need to continue to press to be seen and heard, along with employees, managers and executives from marginalized communities. Actions matter, not labels. Companies that thrive will be those that value differences, and make the effort to build their own culture of diversity, regardless of the politics of DEI.

Signed commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of BioCentury.