Sen. Patty Murray calls out BIO, PhRMA on gender diversity efforts

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The letters come just weeks after an unofficial party—the Party at BIO Not Associated with BIO, known as PABNAB—included topless dancers with company logos painted onto their bodies as entertainment. (Jorge Guillen)

In the aftermath of another industry party that objectified women, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee sent letters to BIO and PhRMA about their efforts to combat workplace harassment at their member companies. 

The letters come just weeks after an unofficial party—the Party at BIO Not Associated with BIO, known as PABNAB—included topless dancers with company logos painted onto their bodies as entertainment. BIO President James Greenwood and BIO Board Chairman John Maraganore denounced the party, saying that if the party's sponsors repeated the offense, they would be ejected from the trade group. 

Murray was not buying it. 

"[However,] I’m not aware of anything your organization and these industry leaders have done to ensure there are real consequences for sponsoring companies, nor used your leadership roles to address the broader workplace challenges in the biotechnology industry," she wrote in her letter to BIO. 

She pointed to the gender imbalance at the BIO International Convention this year—while BIO was working to get more women involved in the conference and prevent all-male panels, the event still hosted 25 panels without a single female speaker. What's more, men made up about 70% of the speakers and panelists at the convention. 

"The lack of female representation at the conference, even in light of panels specially geared toward women and their advancement, is disappointing and speaks to the larger issues of diversity and equal opportunity for advancement in the biotech industry," she wrote. 

While the group has formed a diversity and inclusion committee that created "workforce development, diversity and inclusion" guidelines, it has not yet released industry standards for creating safe and equal workplaces, Murray said. 

Murray was more general in her letter to PhRMA President Steve Ubl, citing a 2016 survey that, of 1,067 women working in biomedical research, 30% reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. She called out Novartis, Pfizer and Sanofi by name for high-profile cases of sexual harassment, but acknowledged that "these accounts likely underestimate the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the pharmaceutical industry." 

She also noted that PhRMA had been "silent" in response to PABNAB, even though Bayer had sponsored the event.   

"[The] bottom line is that objectifying women and exploiting cultural traditions for the purposes of entertaining fellow industry members is a deeply troubling indication of the way the industry leaders still devalue diversity and inclusion," she said. 

She ended both letters with a request for information, including any polling, surveys or research that the trade groups had undertaken to "understand the scope of the problem in the industry," to assess risk factors and to "solicit feedback from employees about how to best address harassment in the industry." She also asked for any best practices either group has identified to assess and address harassment and any steps they had taken to make sure its member companies are "fully and properly educating their employees about workplace harassment policies and rights."

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