Across the pharma industry and throughout healthcare, the totems of difference and parity provide genuine opportunities for tangible change. Improved outcomes, a greater understanding of the human condition and an environment which includes everyone are all within our reach.

On the long journey to diversity, equality and inclusion the world has reached a crossroads and, it appears, there is no going back. A collective realisation is emerging – the reality of ‘difference’ is viewed as positive, while inclusion is regarded, not as a choice, but the very limit of our expectations.

This ‘paradigm of parity’ is no more resonant than across the vast terrain of healthcare and throughout our global industry. It is a reminder that diversity and inclusion cannot happen on a country-by-country basis – diversity and inclusion is a country, and one that the international community which makes up pharma must unify to inhabit. After all, we are all patients, and we all want to make a difference.

For many decades, companies have talked about ‘tolerance’, but tolerance is when you order pizza without mushrooms, and when it arrives with mushrooms, you eat it anyway. Diversity and inclusion is not about ‘putting up with people’ who don’t occupy typical demographic groups – it is about realising that different genders, races, sexualities, abilities, backgrounds and classes add an essential kaleidoscope of perspectives, which enhance company performance and form a catalyst for innovation.

In the specific example of pharma, having representation from alternative groups and cross sections within society, opens up a unique frame of reference for drug development. Why imagine being in someone else’s shoes, when you could be learning directly from the person who owns the shoes? Indeed, these pockets of knowledge within a company have increased in currency during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the nuances of socioeconomic, location, employment and ethnicity factors have been repeatedly highlighted.

Practising good pharma   

This notion of individual impact is vital for diversity to fully flourish. Recently, pharma – like many other industries – has dispersed the responsibility for inclusivity among everyone, thereby compelling people to make a personal, moral and dutiful investment in the fabric of their workplace.

This evolving practice has engendered a very human response, shifting it from an arbitrary company stance to a cultural movement which is incumbent on individuals. To paraphrase President John F Kennedy, whose own ambitions for the civil rights movement could have transformed the global landscape much earlier: “Ask not what your company can do for you, but what you can do for your company.”

Indeed, some companies have realised that only when each and every member of the pharma community embraces the possibilities of diversity and inclusivity, will an all-encompassing cultural transformation truly occur. This means incorporating diversity in every arena of the pharma industry – different voices in the boardroom, different ideas in the laboratories, different ways of delivering information and marketing. The full tapestry of human experience running through our industry at every level.

Joy Fitzgerald is Vice President and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Eli Lilly. In recent years, the company has been making significant strides towards an inclusive culture, rolling out a completely different approach to selecting personnel in the process. Joy describes why inclusion has become a fundamental part of its ethos: “We see it as having three main impacts – recruiting and retaining the best talent, unlocking that talent inside the organisation and creating an environment in which people can feel included and have the confidence to contribute meaningful work.”

Lilly measures its improvement by monitoring the representation of women and minorities in key areas, while also employing demographic statistics across the enterprise and studying talent management data. It also uses culture and engagement surveys as a barometer for leadership behaviours, and the extent to which an inclusive environment is blossoming.

“Our approach has been to develop a long-term strategy to create a new kind of environment,” says Joy. “You can’t just jump to outcomes – you need to build strong foundations and we intend to ensure consistent progress over time, with strategies that endure.”

Such activity is a clear indication that diversity has transcended from lip service to evidence-based action on the ground. This vital distinction between ‘well-meaning’, but often weightless initiatives, and the motivation to deliver cultural metamorphosis, shows that tangible progress is being made. Furthermore, the very presence of influential roles – like Joy’s – at big pharma companies, is another clear statement of intent.

Cultural landscape

In all facets of life, if we surround ourselves by people who look, sound and dress exactly like us, we shouldn’t be surprised if we keep dancing to the same old tune. Innovation in pharma so often relies on variation within the collaborative process; similarly, breaking new ground in disease areas requires new perspectives. That means inviting new people to the party, with new dance moves (ones that you might not be able to replicate, but you can still appreciate).

The synergy between performance and diversity, however, is complicated. “We can’t always draw a straight line directly from diversity and inclusion to business benefits,” reflects Joy. “But as diversity and inclusion has become more embedded in our business, we can certainly see a correlation. Things like stock price, cycle time in manufacturing and speed of response to new business opportunities have all trended positively in recent years while, at the same time, our metrics in diversity and inclusion have been improving. That’s no coincidence.”

And Joy is right, drawing from a vast palette of different human viewpoints produces something that translates very powerfully to the pharma environment. We know that diseases, illnesses and conditions impact different people in different ways. It stands to reason that having a workforce which holds a mirror up to society, inevitably creates a foundation for taking on the welter of health challenges that affect the global population. It’s not rocket science, but it is life science – and turning the volume up on minority voices can make all the difference.

Joy explains: “We provide medicines for a number of diseases that are prevalent in African, American and Latino communities in the US and by representing their populations in our workforce, we are proactively striving to better understand and meet their needs.”

Integrating inclusivity into the DNA of a company doesn’t happen overnight. Organisations need to go beyond semiotics or tokenism and, instead, ‘inclusion’ must become second nature. The culture at Lilly ensures that lived experiences of disadvantaged minority groups are recognised and, by embedding this understanding with employees and processes, connections are duly galvanised and conscious inclusion becomes established – habitual.

The systems Lilly has in place are also designed to navigate mitigating circumstances which, historically, have hampered the march towards diversity. All its mechanisms, from talent management and performance-assessment, to recruiting new employees and deciding who gets development assignments are built to interrupt individual biases, while defaulting to objectivity and fairness. It is this level of robustness which is creating a template for the new world, a design for life which breaks the mould, offers hope for equality and provides pharma with a new standard of excellence.

Open up

Commitment to diversity and inclusion is now being taken very seriously by many companies across the pharmaverse, and Lilly has demonstrated that building a sustainable, evolving strategy can start to deliver diversity and inclusion.

From the end of 2015 to the close of 2019, it increased the number of women in management globally, from 41% to 45%. Meanwhile, racial and ethnic minorities, and other non-majority members in the US, increased in the area of management representation from 18% to 24%. Across all levels of its workforce, in 2019, representation for minorities in the US increased exponentially to 27%.

In addition, six out of 14 members (43%) of the Executive Committee – which reports directly to the chief executive – are women, including one woman of colour, and Lilly’s 13-member board of directors includes four women (31%) and five members of under-represented groups (38%).

Clearly we are all venturing in a better, bolder direction, but we should also remember that diversity is not a new fanciful social experiment – it’s precisely what defines human history; this is about getting back to what’s real. When Martin Luther King Jr talked about the ‘Promised Land’ in his ‘I have a Dream’ speech, it was not a mystical utopia or an illusion, but a vision of different human beings interacting without the corruption of discrimination. As we gain momentum within civil, gay, trans and disability rights, pharma – an industry which deals very explicitly with millions of human lives in all their complexity – has a particular responsibility for shunning exclusion.

Consequently, pharma is taking a new, unheralded path, recognising that the only way forward is to take down the walls of division and let inclusivity take flight. The path ahead is a long one and there are still many rivers to cross, but for the first time we are recognising – with complete clarity – that difference really is the future.