'We can do better': BIO's first breakdown of diversity in member companies

People around a conference table headed by a black woman
Smaller, younger biotechs led the pack at increasing representation of women and people of color in the leadership ranks. (Shutterstock)

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) has been plugging away at improving diversity in its member companies for years, setting up and ratifying a group of diversity goals in June 2017. Now, the industry group has published its first “state of the industry” report and the results are encouraging—somewhat. 

The good news: The results, compiled from a survey of more than 100 BIO members completed last summer, show that the companies are “approaching gender parity,” with women making up 45% of all employees. Racial and ethnic diversity lagged behind, with people of color making up 32% of all employees. 

The bad news? These percentages drop for both women and people of color as you look up the ranks. Women make up 30% of executive teams and 18% of biotech company board members, while those numbers are 15% and 14% for people of color, respectively. 

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Of the 107 companies who participated, 64% were on the smaller side with fewer than 100 employees. Several (10%) were massive, with more than 10,000 employees. The ratio of public to private companies was about even (54% to 46%), as was the ratio of pre-revenue to profitable companies (54% to 46% as well). 

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The smaller, younger biotechs led the pack at increasing representation of women and people of color in the leadership ranks. Pre-revenue biotechs are more likely than profitable ones to have a female CEO (22% versus 9%) and have executive teams that are at least 25% people of color (29% versus 12%). Small biotechs are twice as likely as large ones to have a female CEO (20% versus 9%) and privately held companies are three times more likely to have a person of color as CEO (19% versus 6%). 

“While these numbers show progress in some areas, we know that as an industry, we can do better,” said Helen Torley, chair of BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and CEO of Halozyme Therapeutics, in a statement. “What is hopeful about this report is that many BIO member companies express a strong desire to do better—and a commitment to take the needed actions to get there.” 

As of now, it looks like BIO members are paying lip service to diversity and inclusion but not backing it up with solid actions. The companies reported that 80% of their employees and 73% of their leaders “demonstrate a commitment to creating an inclusive environment.” But only about half of them (52%) had official diversity and inclusion programs, and 42% didn’t even collect diversity data such as “employee demographics or discrepancies in performance rankings, pay and promotion.” Only 16% of the companies had programs to promote or develop women, and 12% had programs to promote or develop people of color. 

However, the vast majority of companies (82%) had policies or programs about accountability and the reporting of harassment or bias, indicating pursuit of a more old-school reactive approach rather than a proactive one. 

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It’s worth noting that not all 107 companies answered all parts of the survey, with the data above coming from 98 respondents. About half of the companies (50) answered every question about gender representation and fewer still (33) answered every question about race or ethnicity representation. The report suggests that companies may have left some questions out because their “D&I [diversity and inclusion] efforts are in early stages.” 

The report ends with suggestions for companies at different points in the "D&I maturity curve": education, diagnose, act and scale. Companies in the earlier stages are making sure their employees understand that “D&I is a business priority, not simply a ‘nice-to-have' add-on" and gathering data to measure how they’re doing diversity-wise. Companies that have done these steps can then launch programs aimed at improving diversity, such as leadership development and inclusive behavior trainings, investment in pay equity, networking opportunities and reviewing hiring/career progress practices. 

It recommends companies focus on representation at the board level: “Given extremely low gender and race/ethnicity representation at the board level, it is imperative to put a disproportionately high focus on recruiting diverse board members, using, for example, targeted talent networks instead of relying on word-of-mouth and personal connections.

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