Does pharma have a problem with inclusivity and innovation?

As we’ve seen only too clearly in recent weeks, the pharmaceutical industry is of paramount importance to the global economy and society. The collaboration regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the sector at its best, reports Stephen Frost, Founder, Frost Included

It’s certainly diverse, in terms of nationality and culture at least, but it could be more inclusive. Part of its problem is insularity concerning hiring practices and an over-confidence in its own abilities.

Can the industry really meet diverse, new patient and customer needs if it hasn’t yet fully embraced inclusion amongst its own staff base? Every major pharmaceutical company undertakes some form of diversity and inclusion work. However, that doesn’t mean it’s reaching the decision makers.

When Reshma Kewalramani was appointed as Chief Executive of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, she became one of just two female CEOs in the top 25 pharma companies worldwide. Of the top 35 we have worked with, Emma Walmsley at GSK, Marie France Tschudin at Novartis and Heather Bresch at Mylan stand out, joining Reshma as the only four female leaders.

Compared with any other major industry, that level of gender diversity is low. Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, is the only African American CEO in the top 35.

Graduate programmes and lower management levels display more diversity … but from middle management onwards it becomes a male game. This month, we spoke to 13 professionals in diversity roles in six separate pharma companies; 12 of them said that pharma was either very or somewhat insular in its hiring practices.

We could take outside industry churn as a measure of openness to new people and ideas. When compared with almost any other sector, pharma does not recruit from outside.

Stephen Frost

Perhaps more worrying is that many pharma companies are not properly considering inclusion in their consumer work: seven of our colleagues said that their organisation considered the diversity of its customer base when discussing how best to meet consumer needs.

However, six said the opposite. When a new pharma CEO was appointed, he privately acknowledged he wanted to use inclusion and diversity to provoke the “executive team.” In his view, the extant one was too comfortable, too insular and too resistant to change.

Reasons for insularity

In my years working alongside executives in the industry, I have personally witnessed brilliant innovation, excellent people management and the highest ethical standards. However, is pharma’s success part of the problem? When you have such an abundance of resources within, might you be less inclined to look elsewhere?

With an obvious scientific bias, there is less credence given to people’s “lived experience” because it’s harder to quantify. This can result in an empathy deficit. When the diversity business case only offers correlation, not causation, many executives may dismiss its contribution to business and scientific outcomes.

When many executives are working hard on complex briefs, there may be limited additional cognitive capacity available for empathy. When their companies are doing well, they may rely on their own view, rather than inviting challenge from the outside.

A way forward

The good news is that diversity is now high on the agenda. We just need to progress to more inclusion. The future of medication is increasing individualisation; so, unless the “diversity” of people/patients is effectively factored in, pharma companies will not be able to provide future medication. Without being inclusive, pharma would only provide medication for the “standard male person.”

COVID-19 has been an inspiring example of the industry at its best — with labs opened for rapid testing, co-operation between firms and the release of staff for medical duties. Diversity is now featuring in clinical trials.

Pharma now needs to bring this excellence to diversity and inclusion, start measuring inclusion properly and embedding it throughout the business cycle. Scientific bias needs to be challenged head on. After all, inclusion is more than a technical fix, it’s a behavioural methodology that can help science to achieve better outcomes for all of us.

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