'Day job and a gay job': LGBTQ+ leaders in biopharma want those who look, talk and love like them to be seen and counted

Editor's note: This is the final piece in a three-part series profiling LGBTQ+ leaders and inclusion efforts in biopharma. The first part details how the industry is in the early stages of inclusion work. The second installment looks at what it means to be openly LGBTQ+ in the drug development industry and how the industry can move forward. 

Vertex Pharmaceuticals wanted to poach Morrey Atkinson, Ph.D., from Bristol Myers Squibb. But before he would commit, Atkinson needed to know the cystic fibrosis drug maker was committed to the LGBTQ+ community.  

“The first question I asked during the interview process is: ‘Can I speak to somebody from your Pride ERN?,’” Atkinson said, referring to Vertex’s employee resource network for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. Conversations with members of that network helped inform his decision to jump to Vertex in June 2020 to be a senior vice president and executive sponsor of the ERN, which includes 500 of the company’s 3,500 global workers.  

Atkinson’s experience illustrates how bringing together LGBTQ+ employees and outwardly displaying a commitment to the community can influence industry participation and employee recruitment. 

Morrey Atkinson, Ph.D., Vertex SVP and
head of commercial manufacturing
and supply chain (Vertex)

But the biopharma industry has long ignored the community or failed to bring LGBTQ+ employees together in a systematic and organized way. Most companies don’t have LGBTQ+ employee resource groups. The percentage of biotechs with one dropped from 76% in 2019 to 56% in 2020, according to a BIO report published in June.  

RELATED: Vertex hires BMS vet Atkinson to shore up manufacturing for bustling cell and gene therapy pipeline

“To be honest, there’s not a lot of things going on in the life sciences community to benefit our particular community,” said Tia Lyles-Williams, founder and CEO of bioprocessing and manufacturing company LucasPye Bio. 

'Day job and a gay job'

In interviews with nearly two dozen leaders across various pockets of biopharma, OUTbio was cited as one of the only—if not the only—life sciences organizations dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. 

Ramsey Johnson started the Boston-based organization in 2015 and has since grown the group into a nonprofit with more than 1,200 people on its distribution list. The group's work—events, networking, a mentorship program—has since inspired a crop of leaders in New York, New Jersey, California, the U.K. and Ireland to begin forming OUTbio outfits in their respective locales. Richard Bae said he is working with industry peers in San Francisco to replicate OUTbio’s efforts in the Bay Area.

OUTbio founder Ramsey Johnson

“I like to joke that I have a day job and a gay job,” Johnson said of splitting his time on president duties at OUTbio and vice president responsibilities at BridgeBio’s Phoenix Tissue Repair.  

One of the dozen attendees at OUTbio’s first event in 2015 said their company had money set aside for diversity-focused events and offered to host the next gathering.  

So, bluebird bio began the trend. Pfizer phoned next. Then Takeda. Before long, Biogen boarded the train, and Alnylam asked to join the party, too.  

“‘Gosh, if we are seeing this at Alnylam and all these people are coming from outside the organization, why aren’t we doing something as a company to support our LGBTQ employees?’” Johnson said, recalling the thinking of Alnylam’s leadership after they hosted an event. As a result, the biopharma started an employee resource group (ERG) for its LGBTQ+ staff.

Six years in and a pandemic later, OUTbio wants to expand to other cities, introduce a scholarship program for LGBTQ+ children who plan to study a STEM field and resume a slate of in-person events. 

'Stand up and be counted'

One of those nascent offshoots in London has already attracted about 150 members, said Quin Wills, M.D., Ph.D., who is helping lead the U.K. OUTbio group. With virtual events and an in-person one already in the books, the U.K. unit is focused on encouraging LGBTQ+ life sciences employees to “stand up and be counted,” he said.  

“At the end of the day, in my mind, there is nothing more powerful than folks seeing leaders who look like them, who talk like them and who love like them,” Wills said.  

Reggie Kelly is working in Dublin with almost 10 industry leaders from AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and others to launch OUTbio in Ireland. With about 30 people on the mailing list, the group expects to host its inaugural event Dec. 9, he said. 

RELATED: Gilead Foundation bounces back with a bang—$200M in the bank and ambitious goals

“There’s just not much for LGBTQ employees in our industry in Dublin. It’s almost silent,” said Kelly, who leads Gilead’s Pride ERG in Ireland. He moved to Dublin with his husband in summer 2020 to be a site head at the Big Pharma.  

(Data from Out Leadership; Image by Fierce Biotech)

Forming OUTbio in Ireland can serve the dual purpose of commingling LGBTQ+ members of the industry but also attracting new talent to strengthen the relationship between the local LGBTQ+ community and biopharma, which “kind of has a bad rap still in Ireland, even though it’s such a big industry here,” Kelly said. Ireland is a hub for biopharma activity as the third-largest exporter of pharmaceuticals globally with more than 85 pharma companies operating in the country, according to IDA Ireland. 

But the industry won’t progress simply by forming community groups. It needs to let in new talent, too. Biopharma operates on innovation and talent attraction—and LGBTQ+-inclusive companies excel at both of those, according to Out Leadership CEO Todd Sears. 

MiNK Therapeutics CEO Jennifer Buell,
Ph.D. (MiNK)

MiNK Therapeutics CEO Jennifer Buell, Ph.D., likens the slow movement to the biology underpinning drug development. In science, bridging diverse cells and therapeutics leads to more effective responses. For the most part, humans haven’t behaved in that manner, she said. Only recently have we begun moving in that direction.

There’s a discrepancy between biotech and pharma when it comes to the amount of funding and corporate resources available for LGBTQ+ initiatives like trainings, gatherings and education.

Paul Hastings, chair of BIO, said he’s impressed by the organized efforts from larger biopharmas, pointing specifically to a Johnson & Johnson event centered on the transgender community. Smaller companies, on the other hand, are focused on ensuring their employees know they care about these issues, he said. 

'Wish I could clone myself'

Some industry leaders noted companies should be more transparent with their LGBTQ+ efforts and encourage their leadership and board members to self-identify so there’s more visibility at the top and a clearer sign of upward mobility for LGBTQ+ people.  

Matt Fust, who’s been in biotech since the mid-90s, has spent the past eight or so years focused on increasing LGBTQ+ inclusion in the boardroom. Himself a member of multiple boards, Fust advises companies, CEOs, boards, general counsels and other stakeholders in elevating sexual orientation and gender identity in their diversity considerations, he said.  

“I wish I could clone myself because there’s a lot more that could be done,” Fust said. He also speaks to VCs, private equity firms and other institutional investors about considering LGBTQ+ diversity. After all, most biotechs would not exist if they weren’t bankrolled by these groups. 

RELATED: Medtronic taps TikTok-famous physician as first chief medical officer of GI business 

Sears of Out Leadership sees a clear shift between generations. His group, Generation X, was the "first generation to start to be out at the workplace" when it entered the office in the late '90s as the AIDS crisis subsided. His cohort's successors, millennials, grew up with "Will and Grace" and was "significantly more out." As for the latest to enter the workforce, Generation Z, the proportion who identify as LGBTQ+ "is shocking," Sears said. Nearly 1 in 6 Gen Z Americans self-identify as LGBT, compared with 9.1% of millennials and 3.8% of Gen X, according to Gallup data gathered last year.

Austin Chiang, M.D.

With those budding numbers, the LGBTQ+ community could play a pivotal role in the talent war surfacing in life sciences. 

Transparency around LGBTQ+ inclusion could give employers an advantage in securing and retaining talent from the ever-growing pool of candidates from Gen Z, Fust points out.

Austin Chiang, M.D., is part of a younger wave of leaders looking to forge a path in the industry. The physician, professor and TikTok star became chief medical officer of Medtronic's GI unit this autumn.

“There’s always been this notion that your sexual orientation could hold you back from opportunity, and I think that’s changing,” Chiang said. "There’s still a lot of work to be done, but if there’s any way I can potentially be of help to the next generation or others, I think that I want to pay it forward in that way.”