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Building Belonging: Pharma’s New Focus in DE&I

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2021
Volume 41
Issue 7

Along with the industry’s massive effort to tackle the health and social problems exposed by COVID, pharma companies have spent the last year addressing the internal impact of racial inequalities following the murder of George Floyd.

In the days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of three Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, pharma was prominent among the organizations and industries conveying their shock, grief, and, most importantly, their renewed efforts to tackle the crisis of social justice. Among those companies issuing statements condemning the murder and reasserting their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I, or D&I) were Bristol Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Genentech, Merck, Novartis, Bayer, Sanofi, and Pfizer. In the first weeks of June 2020, several companies pledged millions of dollars to tackle racial inequality in communities and in their workplaces. J&J, Amgen, and the Vertex Foundation reported they would be committing $3 million, $7.5 million, and $4 million, respectively, to this endeavor over the next three years. Eli Lilly announced a pledge of $25 million and 25,000 employee volunteer hours of service (see chart on page 24).

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin

There’s a difference, of course, between choosing the right words to say in the heat of the moment and achieving real, measurable results further down the line. But analyst, educator, and thought leader in the global talent market, Josh Bersin, Dean of the Josh Bersin Academy, told Pharm Exec that “there are a lot of very serious efforts going on in pharma” in the DE&I space. The John Bersin Academy’s recent report, Elevating Equity: The Real Story of Diversity and Inclusion, conducted in partnership with Perceptyx, has assessed how much the US has actually “moved the needle” on DE&I after all the billions of dollars invested in training, tools, tech, and HR strategies.

“Our research found that pharma was one of the top industries in DE&I maturity (in the top quintile) based on all the factors we studied,” says Bersin. “It’s an industry characterized by diverse scientists, engineers, and salespeople, and they serve a diverse set of customers and stakeholders. I think in many ways it’s a role model for other industries.”

Maya Martinez-Davis

Maya Martinez-Davis

Indeed, drilling down into some of the things big pharma companies have introduced in the year since the George Floyd news issued a wake-up call to much of western society reveals a number of progressive programs and initiatives focused on making systemic change happen “We truly value creating an environment where every person can be their authentic self,” GSK President, US Pharmaceuticals, Maya Martinez-Davis, told Pharm Exec. “So, you can imagine how events of 2020 affected us,” she continues. “Witnessing scenes of racial injustice, including the murder of George Floyd and others, and the violence and hatred imposed on Asian-Americans made us consider how we as individuals and how collectively GSK as a company first and foremost support our employees, but also it made us consider how we could make a difference.”

GSK employees wanted “to accelerate conversations on the key issues that were affecting them, their families, and their friends,” so the company created internal opportunities for engagement through open “Listening Session” forums, designed to “ensure that those discussions could be had” in an environment where employees felt safe. It has fostered a growing sense of awareness, says Martinez-Davis, for those who may have not realized the impact of these external issues on their colleagues. More, importantly, the discussions have “reinforced the need to implement impactful change.”

At Novartis, Marion Brooks, vice president and US country head of diversity and inclusion, saw in the tragedy of the social justice crisis an opportunity to increase empathy, sensitivity, and connectivity across the organization. “So that’s exactly what we did,” he told Pharm Exec. “We became very active in ensuring that we allow people to have a voice, and through our Standing Together communications we were very clear about what we stand for and do not stand for as an organization.”

Like GSK, Novartis instigated forums to give associates an opportunity to speak “and also to learn.” Says Brooks, “One outcome was that we realized that a lot of people had assumptions—but not insights—around the experiences of Black and African-American people. So, it was a teachable moment, and an opportunity for us to connect at a higher level than we have in the past.” He adds, “I know I personally shared some experiences in some of the forums that I had never shared at work. We were able to do that by creating a comfortable space where we can have uncomfortable conversations. You don’t grow by being comfortable or complacent.”

Rebekah Martin

Rebekah Martin

D&I has been part of AstraZeneca’s business and internal strategies for many years, but since the murder of George Floyd the company has introduced additional measures to “ensure racial equity in our workforce and in access to our medicines,” Rebekah Martin, AZ’s senior vice president, reward and inclusion, told Pharm Exec. The measures were shaped by input from employees across the organization on the local impact of health inequities and how AZ could address them. “It’s important to know where we are so that we can recognize gaps,” Martin explains. “We’ve set a target for 2025 to increase voluntary disclosure of race and ethnicity data to 80% completion in those countries where employees are able to disclose. This will help us better understand our organization and recognize where we need to do more.” She adds, “We recognize that organizations like ours have a responsibility to walk the talk and help put an end to systemic racism.”

Doug Langa

Doug Langa

For Novo Nordisk Inc., the social justice crisis shook the company’s confidence in its long-established D&I activities. “We felt good about what we were doing; we had programs focused on helping communities with diverse populations meet their healthcare needs—helping to ensure access to equitable healthcare and life-saving medicines,” Doug Langa, executive vice president, head of North America operations and president, Novo Nordisk US, told Pharm Exec. “This perception and our approach to D&I quickly changed in the days and weeks following the murder of George Floyd.” The tragedy “ignited something visceral,” says Langa. “We saw a range of emotions—anger, hurt, confusion and an intensified call for systemic, societal change. Through ‘courageous conversations’ with an intention to listen, heal, and learn, we realized just how much pain our employees were in, and how they needed our organization to support them.” The company also learned how much opportunity there was to “truly integrate D&I into our organization,” adds Langa. “We’ve created dedicated teams and frameworks that allowed us to more effectively listen, learn, adapt, and act when our employees needed us.”

To reach diversity, achieve inclusion

Having surveyed more than 800 organizations and analyzed more than 80 different practices and programs, the Elevating Equity report concluded that the tone of the conversation around DE&I has changed. “The issue is no longer just about ‘diversity,’” the report states. “The new focus is on inclusion, because we know that diversity without inclusion will fail.”

One of the study’s key themes is that “inclusion should be the goal and diversity is the result—thereby flipping the focus to actual behaviors.” Bersin explained further to Pharm Exec: “Many companies push for diversity in hiring, but then Black or minority hires leave because they don’t feel included. Companies can assess their [approach to] inclusion or ‘belonging’ using lots of assessment tools (usually, engagement surveys ask a few questions like, ‘How well does the company listen to your ideas?’).” Bersin’s research found that inclusion or belonging was “the No. 1 driver of employee engagement during the pandemic.” He adds, “We like to say, ‘inclusion drives diversity’—not the other way around.”

To pharma’s credit, a number of companies have grasped this concept. At Novo Nordisk, says Langa, the listening sessions over the last year, which serve to empower employees to speak up and comfort and allyship to those who need it, “demonstrated that community is about belonging. “They inspired us to include belonging in our diversity, equity, and inclusion framework, now known as DEI&B.”

One of the internal events that Novartis implemented amid 2020’s social justice crisis was the Day of Reflection.

“This very much focuses on inclusion,” says Brooks. “It’s a day where we come together to make sure that everyone feels they have a voice and that we see and hear them and that they matter.”

The Day has associates come together to explore, learn, and connect on topics that impact us all. “We’ve just completed our second Day of Reflection—that’s nearly 13,500 people participating over the last two years,” says Brooks. “Eighty-nine percent said that they found the first one extremely valuable, and this year, feedback looks to be the same.” Novartis also had 15,000 associates complete two phases of “Inclusion in Action” training, first addressing bias and stereotypes and, second, looking at how to shift from behavior to impact.

NOTE: For more information on each company’s contribution, view their press releases listed in order here: https://bit.ly/3zVVmcv; https://bit.ly/3h0vNhL; https://yhoo.it/3jfrHoL; https://bit.ly/3xQ9IJH; https://bit.ly/3wWr33s; https://bit.ly/3zZkHT8; https://bit.ly/2SUSoob; https://bit.ly/3j7yVLy; https://bit.ly/3h658A2; https://bit.ly/3wW46O2

For its part, GSK has introduced annual mandatory inclusion training, aimed at preventing exclusion and bias, and has included a specific focus on DE&I in its leadership development programs, adding new questions on creating an inclusive environment in the organization’s annual manager feedback tool. Across the US, each business area has an inclusion and diversity board composed of employees who create plans for activities and actions that help foster an inclusive culture.

AZ is also introducing mandatory conscious inclusion training for all staff, says Martin. “Beyond that, our commitment needs to be long term,” she adds. “Our five corporate values are supported by 10 behavioral statements that we hold ourselves accountable to. Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, we updated our behaviors to better reflect our commitment to inclusion and diversity, both within our company and in the diverse patient populations we help. We ensure we are all living these behaviors by embedding them into how our contribution is evaluated and rewarded.”

Further facilitating efforts in inclusion are employee resource groups (ERGs), which have, in many cases, increased the education, support, and action they offer to employees. At Novartis, ERGs “have seen a 160% increase in engagement since last year; 9,400-plus associates are now part of an ERG,” says Brooks. They play an integral part in the Day of Reflection, helping to moderate the Q&A breakout sessions, for example, and during COVID, “ERGs drove 62 events that offered opportunities for us all to connect, learn from each other, and focus on our common humanity versus what makes us different.”

At AZ, ERGs continue “to grow exponentially,” says Martin. These global communities—which include Network of Women, African Heritage, Working Parent, LGBTQIA+, and Safe Space (mental health)—“contribute to an environment where people, regardless of background, seniority or geography, feel safe and able to speak their minds.” Each AZ ERG is supported with a structure and funding and empowered to drive activities that foster inclusion and diversity in the organization.

Talent and leadership

Among the “very serious” DE&I efforts happening in pharma, “the first is highly diversifying the hiring pool,” says Bersin. “Most pharma companies I talk with are working very hard to recruit diverse candidates, looking for people with varied backgrounds and experiences, and trying to avoid ‘credential bias’ based on university degree.”

Speaking to Pharm Exec a year ago, Novartis’ Brooks said that the company had just implemented new hiring guidelines “to help us to engage with diverse communities and to build a pipeline of diverse talent.” Last month, Brooks told us that these guidelines are successful. “In 2020, 86% of our candidate slates were gender diverse, and 84% were racially and ethnically diverse,” he says. “We’re looking to improve upon that. Research shows that if you only have one person of color or woman in a candidate pool, statistically, they don’t have a chance of receiving an offer because of confirmation bias. So, this was a major step by us to make sure there’s representation at every level of qualified talent.”

Marion Brooks

Marion Brooks

Brooks also points to the success of Novartis’ pilot multicultural engagement program, which identified, invested in, and supported diverse candidates who did not necessarily feel they were able to pursue the roles they wanted to go for. “Sixty percent of the associates in that pilot program have already received promotions or stretch assignments,” notes Brooks. Based on the pilot’s success, “we’ve now expanded the program to all divisions in the US, and we’ve expanded the program to include Black and African-American talent and Latinx talent.” The company plans to continue growing the engagement program and “provide opportunities for people that are diverse to move into senior leadership roles by investing in them and supporting them, not just for a year but for the long term.”

GSK is also working on increasing the ethnic diversity of its senior leaders in the US and UK. “For the US, our goal is to reach at least 30% ethnically diverse leaders by the end of 2025; we are currently at 23%,” Martinez-Davis told Pharm Exec. “While we’re expecting to see progress across all ethnically diverse groups in leadership, we are expecting year-on-year increases in the percentage of Black and African-American and Latinx senior leaders,” she added. GSK has signaled its commitment to these targets by disclosing its representation and its aspirational targets in its annual report to “ensure transparency and accountability.”

Meanwhile, GSK’s leading role in efforts such as the Philadelphia STEM Equity Collective is addressing talent issues at a more nascent level, increasing access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in homes and communities to “create diverse education-to-career pathways and build work environments where Black people, Latinx people, and women thrive.” The company has awarded more than $1 million in grant funds to local organizations to support in-school, out-of-school, and career training programs targeted to girls, women, and Black and Latinx Philadelphia students; additional grant funds will be awarded to local organizations later this year.

Martin says that AZ is committed to increasing ethnic minority representation across the organization, “to ensure our workforce is representative of the communities we serve.” And this, she adds, starts from the top. “At senior leadership level, we have more than 30 nationalities in senior vice president roles and nine different nationalities represented on the senior executive team,” says Martin. “To help ensure this diversity is represented throughout our company, we’re also investing more than $5 million in early talent programs to increase ethnic minority representation in our business.”

The journey continues

The Elevating Equity report notes that “the effort invested in DE&I is skyrocketing” across all industries in the US. When the study was published in February 2021, there were more than 48,000 jobs open for directors or vice presidents of DE&I. And big pharma companies such as Novartis, AZ, GSK, and NNI are taking a lead in this space. According to Elevating Equity, the companies that are succeeding in their DE&I efforts are doing so because they listen to employees and act accordingly, they have leaders who drive change into the organization,“and they have clear measurably goals that go beyond diversity representation and instill accountability across all levels.”1

But while pharma is making advances, the trend for diversity in the US is actually “backsliding,” the report explains. Progress has “reversed” since the abandonment of the affirmative action goals of the late 1970s, which saw “people of color and women get equal access to housing, voting rights, and business opportunities…” Currently, “only three of the Fortune 500 companies are led by a Black CEO, down from seven a decade ago, and there have only ever been two black female CEOs in this category.”2

Thus, we are still, as Novo Nordisk’s Langa observes, “at an early stage in our journey.” But he adds, “As my mother-in-law always says, ‘Dream big, be better, and do better.’ If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future, but we can be positioned to innovate and adapt to whatever comes our way.” 


  1. Elevating Equity: The Real Story of Diversity and Inclusion, Josh Bersin Academy, 2021, p. 36
  2. Ibid., p.2

Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com.

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