As the world plans its recovery from the setbacks imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, industries are looking to apply lessons learned from the past year and improve business operations going forward. In the life sciences, like many industries, working from home will likely remain more prevalent than it was pre-pandemic even after it’s safe for employees to return to the office.
In the clinical research sector, the successes achieved in running virtual clinical trials have demonstrated that it’s possible to conduct all-important drug research without requiring patients to make as many in-person visits to sites.
However, this trying year has also highlighted the shortfalls the life science industry continues to struggle with. Women have been leaving the workforce in record numbers, having already been underrepresented in science-related fields pre-pandemic.
Ethnic and cultural diversity is still lacking at most biopharmaceutical companies. And challenges in establishing the right organizational culture continue to change as companies navigate their new normal.
Leaders in this sector must not lose sight of these larger goals that can make companies stronger in the long term.
Here are three goals that are critical to the continued success of life science firms in 2021. To hear four leaders share their insights on what constitutes great leadership in the life sciences, register for this free webinar.
1. Encouraging Women to Work in the Life Sciences
Every year, the world celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11. And while pioneers from Rosalind Franklin to Jennifer Doudna have certainly made their mark, women are still underrepresented in the life sciences.
In 2019 just 27 percent of those working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) were women, according to the United States Census Bureau. While the percentage of women in the social, life and physical sciences, along with mathematics-related fields, has been steadily increasing since 1970, women are considerably less represented in engineering and computer roles — areas that make up 80 percent of all STEM jobs.
Encouraging women to explore roles in STEM fields is a fine goal, but the benefits of such gender diversity won’t be realized if the majority of these women don’t have a seat at the table. The number of women in senior-level roles across multiple industries has remained relatively stagnant for the past five years; in 2020, 33 percent of senior managers/directors in corporate America were women compared to 32 percent back in 2015, according to the latest Women in the Workplace report generated by McKinsey & Company.
And this problem has been compounded by the fact that over two million women have exited the US workforce since the pandemic began in 2020. While some have been laid off as a result of business shutdowns, others have put their careers on hold to care for their kids as social supports like daycare and school were removed.
This loss of female employees from the workforce is detrimental to businesses on many levels. Another recent report on diversity from McKinsey found that companies with executive leadership teams comprised of 30 percent women were 48 percent more likely to outperform in terms of financial earnings compared to companies with no gender diversity at the top.
And while a large focus has been put into helping the next generation gets closer to achieving gender parity in the workplace by funding STEM programs aimed at getting girls excited about science, technology, engineering and math, the key to recruiting and retaining women in the life sciences today may lie in businesses establishing more flexible and supportive work practices.
In particular, pay equity should be a top priority to ensure that women stay within life science fields and advance their careers. Women still earn less in nearly every STEM field compared to their male counterparts, according to the most recent statistics from the Census Bureau.
Intersectional approaches to increasing diversity within an organization can also help to address the barriers faced by women of color. This shift in focus away from inclusivity policies that treat race and gender separately can ensure that Black women aren’t overlooked.
2. Supporting Diversity to Strengthen Business
Much has been said in the past few years about solving the diversity problem in clinical trials, but what about the state of ethnic and cultural diversity within life science organizations? While 32 percent of total employees at biopharma companies identify as people of color, just 15 percent of executives and 14 percent of board members are non-white, according to a report on diversity generated by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).
When broken down by race and ethnicity, the BIO study found that Asian employees were the most represented minority comprising 22 percent of total employees, nine percent of executives and 11 percent of board members at biopharmas. Other ethnicities were markedly less represented with Hispanic/Latinx individuals making up just five percent of total employees and three percent of executive and board members; four percent of employees at these companies were Black, and they comprised only one percent of executive and board members.
Out of nearly 100 BIO members included in the survey, not one of the companies employed any Native Americans/Pacific Islanders, though 10 percent of employees did not disclose their race.
Like gender diversity the benefits of ethnic inclusivity cannot be understated. The same McKinsey study on diversity mentioned above found that companies with higher ethnic and cultural diversity are 36 percent more likely to outperform competitors compared to those with a primarly white workforce.
BIO has established some concrete strategies to help life sciences organizations increase inclusion and diversity. They recommend companies widen their pool of prospective candidates for a position by diversifying recruitment practices and advocate for performing blinded resume reviews to reduce bias associated with race, gender and a candidate’s name so that the emphasis is put on finding the most qualified candidate for the job.
In addition, BIO suggests organizing a diverse hiring committee when interviewing candidates and holding this group accountable by requiring them to provide an explanation when a qualified person of color is not chosen for a given role.
3. Establishing Organizational Culture in the New Normal
Since more people are likely to eschew the traditional 9-5 workday even after the pandemic has ended, life science employers will need to maintain some of the flexibility imposed by stay-at-home orders while finding new ways to hold employees accountable. Despite some of the benefits of working from home, remote work has some very real drawbacks, with reduced collaboration, lower productivity and feelings of isolation being recognized as issues in another report by McKinsey.
It’s important for leaders in the life sciences to take note of how COVID-19 has changed the way their organization works and identify what initiatives should take priority in the coming year. Next, companies should categorize the work based on which teams can work remotely, which will be required to return to sites when it’s safe to do so, and which would benefit most from a hybrid model.
And while virtual onboarding of new employees hired at the height of the pandemic was certainly a challenge for most life science firms, some remote HR practices have actually been recognized as superior to the way things were done before the emergence of COVID-19. For example, virtual interviews are more efficient than requiring candidates to visit a site, with hiring managers being able to conduct a greater number in a shorter amount of time.
Virtual hiring practices also significantly widen the candidate pool when the job can be performed almost anywhere. Companies are no longer limited to hiring candidates living in the area — or those who are willing to relocate for the job — when many job functions are able to be executed remotely.
Through seemingly insurmountable challenges, the life science industry has thrived through the 2020 pandemic and into 2021. By applying lessons learned during COVID-19, and maintaining focus on these important goals, leaders will continue to improve operations through the next year and beyond.
For more on how leaders in the life sciences can foster gender and ethnic diversity in companies, as well as build empowered organizations with a strong culture of innovation, register for this webinar.