Is Pharma Too Introspective to be Truly Innovative?

May 14, 2020

Every major pharma company undertakes some form of diversity and inclusion work. However, that doesn’t mean it’s reaching the decision-makers, writes Stephen Frost.

The past few weeks have highlighted very clearly the vital importance of the pharmaceutical (pharma) industry to the global economy and society. The collaboration over the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the industry at its best.  

It’s true to say that the industry is diverse, certainly in terms of nationality and culture at least, but it could be more inclusive. Part of its problem is an over-confidence in its own abilities coupled with insularity in hiring practices. Just how can the industry really meet diverse, new patient and customer needs if it hasn’t yet fully embraced inclusion amongst its own staff base?

Every major pharma company undertakes some form of diversity and inclusion work. However, that doesn’t mean it’s reaching the decision-makers.

When Reshma Kewalramani was appointed Chief Executive of Vertex Pharmaceuticals she became one of just two female CEOs in the top 25 pharma companies worldwide. Of the top 35 we have worked with, Emma Walmsley at GSK, Marie France Tschudin at Novartis and Heather Bresch at Mylan stand out joining Reshma as the only four female leaders. Compared with any other major industry that level of gender diversity is low. Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, is the only African American CEO in the top 35. 

Graduate programs and lower management levels display more diversity but from middle management onwards it becomes a male game. This month, we spoke to 13 professionals in diversity roles in six separate pharma companies. Twelve of them said pharma was either very or somewhat insular in its hiring practices. We could take outside industry churn as a measure of openness to new people and ideas. When compared to almost any other sector, pharma does not recruit from outside. 

Perhaps more worrying is that many pharma companies are not properly considering inclusion in their consumer work. Seven of our colleagues said their organization considered the diversity of its customer base when discussing how best to meet consumer needs. However, six said the opposite. When a new pharma CEO was appointed, he privately acknowledged he wanted to use inclusion and diversity to provoke the Executive team. In his view the Executive was too comfortable, too insular and too resistant to change. 

Too brilliant for its own good?

In my years working alongside executives in the industry I have personally witnessed brilliant innovation, excellent people management and the highest ethical standards. However, is its success part of the problem? When you have such an abundance of resources within, might you be less inclined to look elsewhere?

With an obvious scientific bias, there is less credence given to people’s “lived experience” because it’s harder to quantify. This can result in an empathy deficit. When the diversity business case only offers correlation, not causation, many executives may dismiss its contribution to business and scientific outcomes. When many executives are working hard on complex briefs there may be limited additional cognitive capacity available for empathy. When their companies are doing well, they may rely on their own view, rather than inviting challenge from the outside.

What’s the solution?

The good news is that diversity is now high on the agenda. We just need to move the dial on inclusion. The future of medication is increasingly all about individualisation so unless the “diversity” of people/patients is effectively factored into the process, pharma companies will not be able to provide future medication. Without being inclusive, pharma would only provide medication for the “standard male person.”

COVID-19 has been an inspiring example of the industry at its best. With labs opened for rapid testing, co-operation between firms and release of staff for medical duties. Diversity is now featuring in the clinical trials. The industry now needs to bring this excellence to diversity and inclusion by measuring inclusion properly and embedding it throughout the business cycle. Scientific bias needs to be challenged head on. After all inclusion is much more than a technical fix, it’s a behavioral methodology that can help science and achieve better outcomes for all of us.

Stephen Frost is the founder of global diversity and inclusion consultancy, Frost Included, and co-author of new book, Building An Inclusive Organisation.