'We're getting there': LGBTQ+ progress in biotech lingers in the 'diagnose' stage

Editor's note: This is the first story in a three-part series profiling LGBTQ+ inclusion in biopharma. The second part looks at what it means to be openly LGBTQ+ in the drug development industry. The final installment looks at organizations bringing together LGBTQ+ members in Boston, London, Dublin and beyond. 

Laurent Fischer, M.D., joined DuPont Pharmaceuticals in 1997 on one condition: The company’s leader had to agree to hold trainings on diversity and HIV/AIDS. 

That executive at the time, Nicholas Teti, signed off. But that wasn’t the end. When the CEO walked the halls of DuPont with a book on being LGBTQ+ in the workplace, the employees hurled discriminatory comments at him, Fischer recalled.  

“Well, it’s clear that this company needs training, and that’s why we’re doing it,” Fischer remembers Teti saying.  

Fischer joined the company to advance its HIV drug Sustiva, approved by the FDA in 1998, after leaving Switzerland for New York City in the early '90s because his native country wasn’t gay-friendly.  

Adverum CEO Laurent Fischer, M.D. (Adverum)

The training worked, at least for some. Multiple manufacturing colleagues thanked Fischer for opening their eyes, and some even reconnected with family and friends who'd been rejected because they were gay.  

RELATED: Diversity initiatives pick up across biotech industry, but women, people of color still lack representation 

That was 1997, and yet many biotechs even now remain in the early innings of diversity and inclusion efforts, characterized by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) as the “diagnose” stage, to adhere to industry lingo. This means biopharma has yet to reach what the industry organization calls the educate, pilot and scale steps along the diversity-and-inclusion maturity curve. 

A diversity revolution has already hit the tech industry, putting that sector further ahead, and it’s time for biotech to catch up, according to nearly two dozen LGBTQ+ leaders across life sciences interviewed by Fierce Biotech. But the slow path to becoming a more open industry for LGBTQ+ people reflects the speed of drug development, according to Emily Drabant Conley, Ph.D.  

Conley joined Federation Bio as CEO in summer 2020 after more than a decade at genomics tech startup 23andMe.  

Federation Bio CEO Emily Drabant
Conley, Ph.D. (Federation)

“If you just look at how long it takes us to get a product from discovery through to drug approval, you’re talking about a decade-plus. And I think that those kinds of timelines reflect the speed at which our industry can move sometimes,” Conley said.  

'A non-issue'

As a self-identifying demographic, the LGBTQ+ community is largely left at the margins when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially given the paucity of data about this group. The number of biotechs recording the LGBTQ+ makeup of their staffs dropped from 2019 to 2020, dipping from 13% to 10%, according to a BIO report (PDF) published in June.  

The industry has taken broad strokes to improve its culture and work environment for LGBTQ+ employees over the decades. Some of them have been open about their sexuality in this industry since the '90s, when there was a dearth of mentors.  

At a party with many LGBTQ+ folks at his house years ago, Paul Hastings recalls a guest approaching him to ask, “What do you think of all this diversity and inclusion hoo-ha?” Hastings is one of the most prominent openly gay leaders in the biopharma world in his perch as chair of BIO and as CEO of Nkarta, a cancer cell therapy biotech. He’s spent two decades incorporating LGBTQ+ issues into the field in his work at BIO. 

Data from Human Rights Campaign, Out Leadership and Biotechnology
Innovation Organization 

Hastings gave the guest his two cents. Even now, Hastings said the industry is well aware of LGBTQ+ shortfalls, but, “for the most part, it’s just a non-issue for everybody."  

"[Biotech] is taking it one step at a time; I think we’re getting there,” Hastings said.  

The industry's largest employers have started specific initiatives and set up LGBTQ+-inclusive employee benefits: Biopharma represents about 30 out of 767 employers on the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC's) Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality 2021. The annual index tracks the benefits, policies and practices of companies with more than 500 employees.  

That company size excludes many biotechs from consideration, but people in the industry say policy can only go so far—and, once a company has been on the list for years in a row, Out Leadership CEO Todd Sears worries they might become complacent. 

And for the hundreds of biopharmas that aren't on the list—mainly because they're too small or nascent—LGBTQ+ employee benefits and policies, or lack thereof, can fly under the radar, because that information isn't in the public domain. Some companies just aren't putting in the research to ensure their benefits are inclusive, said Tia Lyles-Williams, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based biomanufacturing company LucasPye Bio. This encompasses areas such as fertility services, HIV/AIDS treatment coverage and other benefits, she said.

"I don't think it's not offered because they don't want to offer it; it's just that typically you have straight white males making these decisions," Lyles-Williams said. The company culture should be inclusive, but so should "all those ancillary things, such as benefits," she added. 

Policy and benefits are part of the equation.

Out Leadership CEO Todd Sears (Out)

“Policy is fine, but if it’s not embedded in everything that we’re doing every single day, then it’s meaningless,” said Stephanie Franklin, chief human resources officer at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a biopharma included in the 2021 HRC Corporate Equality Index cohort. 

BIO teamed up with Out Leadership 15 months ago to begin ramping up LGBTQ+ inclusion efforts across its hundreds of member companies and institutions. The duo is creating a benchmark understanding of how inclusive the industry is for LGBTQ+ employees and what else needs to be done through a pilot of about a dozen member companies, Sears said. 

BIO is one of the few industry organizations focusing on the issue, which Sears gives it credit for.  

“The contrast between tech thinking they have it figured out and they don’t, versus BIO realizing they don’t have it figured out and they’re investing in it, I think is a positive sign,” Sears said.  

'Let's check the box'

For biotech to continue moving forward, concerted industrywide pushes are needed as well as buy-in from individual companies on internal programming and policies.  

United Therapeutics, for its part, has moved from a “let’s check the box” strategy to a more specific road map of awareness-building and training to ingrain diversity and inclusion into its culture, said 18-year company veteran Alyssa Friedrich.  

When it comes to LGBTQ+ diversity, United is a rarity in being led by a transgender executive. CEO Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D., is “all business” when it comes to conversations with co-workers, said Friedrich, who is United’s chief people officer. The company has focused its DEI efforts mainly on race and gender to date, she added. 

The LGBTQ+ community is “very vocal” at United, but the group hasn’t reached a size large enough to forge initiatives, according to Friedrich.  

This goes back to not knowing exactly how many LGBTQ+ employees are in a workforce and an industry that is mostly led by men. According to BIO, men make up 69% of biotech’s executive teams and 76% of the CEO spots. 

RELATED: North Carolina’s controversial transgender bill irks CROs 

Despite progress within companies, at the industry level and in broader culture, more can still be done. Put within a societal scope, LGBTQ+ employees are still not afforded protections in every U.S. state.

Gary Urban, a Science 37 vice president, came out in the '80s when he was in corporate healthcare, a less-welcoming environment for the community at the time. He found his calling once he switched to life sciences in the '90s, when he felt an opportunity to move the needle forward during an era in which HIV/AIDS was still considered a death sentence, he said.  

Now, he’s able to freely reference his husband without colleagues batting an eye. That’s progress, he said.