Stephan B. Breitfeld

By Stephan B. Breitfeld
Feb. 6, 2019

The value of diversity has become almost a cliché – and for good reason. Yet there's still plenty of data that makes it clear we have a long way to go before the life sciences represent the population, on all levels: from board members to trial groups. The 2018 Life Science Workforce Trends Report published by the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes (CSBI) that I also talked about in my last article, stated diversity as one of the main new HR trends as we move into 2019.  

So - what does diversity actually mean?

Diversity is a term with a wide array of definitions that includes diversity in gender, age, race, culture, country of origin, sexual orientation, even educational background or life experiences. Professionally, many also talk of “diversity of thinking” or “diversity of experience” as important elements: from entry-level employees to the board of directors. As Trish Lawrence, former leader of diversity at Pfizer Global Research and Development points out in her essay from 2005, Why Diversity Matters, diversity can also just mean having a group of scientists with different opinions.

Diversity that drives innovation and personalizes treatments

Creativity and innovation are absolutely essential in the life science sector. For this reason, companies benefit tremendously from diversity in their workforce. Some studies even suggest that a team with a mix of perspectives is associated with increased productivity – diverse teams lead to excellent research. Trish Lawrence argues that “a diverse workplace can make for novel and innovative science brought about via the richness of different approaches and experiences and add to the robustness of proposals and solutions”.

Something that may not first come to mind when speaking of diversity but that is equally important in our field is diversity in the context of health care. For example, much of the research that comes out of the Western world uses tissue and blood from white individuals to examine drugs and therapies that will eventually benefit a diverse population. Yet it is well known that people from different ethnic groups can have different susceptibility to some diseases. For this reason, it is vital to put together diverse trial research groups.

How do you achieve it?

Many organizations see diversity in a limited way, and don't go beyond a focus on recruiting more people from minority groups. In the CSBI report, 25% of respondents stated to have formal diversity initiatives for gender or race. Most of those companies had initiatives that cover both gender and race and that target both management and non-management rolls.

However, this is not enough. Diversity efforts should not stop when people are through the door. As always, to retain is as important as to recruit — mentoring and support is therefore essential. Furthermore, successful companies not only seek out different perspectives, but also listen and incorporate these new perspectives so that the whole culture changes. The challenge for organizations becomes to capture the energy such diverse teams can produce.

Creating an inclusive culture is not about single initiatives — it’s about constant, ongoing support, mentorship and a clear and outspoken mission that building diversity is crucial for success. We are stronger if we represent different points of view. Lab groups, departments, universities and companies should encourage participation in science from as many sectors of the population as possible – to ensure research that truly represents society.

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