Why diversity matters now more than ever...and how to put it into practice

When I began my career as a sales rep in the pharma it was rare to see either women or BAME (British, Black, Asian and minority ethnic) reps in the industry, and even rarer to see them in leadership positions. As a BAME woman, I found that disconcerting. It made it much harder for me to move into a marketing role, something I really wanted to do. Indeed, I found I could only ever chip away at the proverbial glass ceiling by continuously moving company to gain promotion. It was the only way to get past the familiar refrain that ‘your face doesn’t fit and you’re female’. I am writing this to acknowledge that much has changed over the last decades – I am living proof that BAME women can succeed in healthcare and more specifically healthcare communications – but so much more needs to be done to increase diversity and inclusion.

Why diversity matters now more than ever

If I think about the mission of imc group and wider industry, it’s all about improving patient outcomes. Those patients come from different cultures and backgrounds, different belief systems and different values. As an industry, we are much better placed to understand those patients, their mindsets and their ultimate needs if we reflect their variety.

The COVID crisis has proven how important this is. For some reason, BAME sufferers are at a higher risk of death from the virus. An official study published at the beginning of June said Black and Asian people in England were up to 50% more likely to die after getting COVID-19. This could be down to socio-economic reasons or cultural reasons, for instance, multigenerational families living under one roof. Nevertheless, greater cultural sensitivity and awareness (read: greater diversity!) amongst health professionals and social workers might lead to more intelligent allocation of resources, as well as better outcomes, once the inevitable second wave of infections begins. In a similar vein, clinical trials for COVID vaccines must seek to include participants from minorities if we are to ensure they are effective for all.

It makes business sense

Greater diversity should also matter to businesses because it makes business sense. Multiple studies have shown that companies with more diverse workplaces perform better financially, with those scoring highly in gender, racial or ethnic diversity boasting financial returns above their industry average. In fact, a recent study from gender diversity consultancy The Pipeline found that large UK firms with executive boards comprising one third females were ten times more profitable than companies with all-male boards.

Diversity is therefore a competitive differentiator. Healthcare businesses with greater diversity should be able to recruit and keep the best talent, and better understand and cater to a diverse customer base, winning a competitive advantage over their competitors.

How to do it

At imc group, we have gone out of our way to boost BAME and gender diversity. Our management team is already majority female and BAME. We work hard to ensure diversity across all levels of seniority in our organisation. That begins with offering employees a flexible work environment and ethos. One of the reasons I started my first business almost twenty years ago was because I wanted the flexibility of being able to work from home, something previous pharma employers never offered. Since then, I have offered that flexibility to all my employees and encouraged them to embrace it. For a start, it means that women don’t have to choose between a professional career and starting a family. This approach has helped us to recruit and importantly retain fantastic talent.

An innovative and open-minded approach to recruitment is also key. We tend to bypass head-hunters and recruitment agencies to find our employees ourselves: it helps us to avoid unconscious bias and means we are tapping a wider, deeper talent pool that other agencies miss. We started attending university fairs in 2017 and for our graduate trainee programme, now virtual during COVID, we target universities with ethnically and culturally diverse campuses, such as Queen Mary University in East London. We talk to female STEM students about considering a career in medical health communications, how we can help, what career progression we offer. Since 2015 we have taken on 23 graduates, 74% of which being female and 47% coming from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Recruitment is important, retention even more so

Of course, finding good employees is only part of the battle. Retaining them is crucial if you’re not to waste money, time and management bandwidth. That means learning to be culturally aware. For instance, many women, particularly from a BAME background, find the male- dominated, Friday-drinks-at-the-pub ethos a bit excluding. So think about other ways of building a more inclusive company culture, laying on alternative team-building events such as quizzes, away days or excursions. To celebrate our recent partnership with Waterland Private Equity we sent everyone in the company a congratulatory bottle of champagne, or a luxury basket of fruit to our non-drinkers – it is all about being culturally sensitive. During Ramadan, we encouraged colleagues not to eat food in front of fasting Muslim team members during our regular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions.

Nurturing talent

Another way to ensure you keep hold of your staff is to help them to acquire the skills they need to progress in your organisation, such as providing an annual training allowance to employees. Many women from certain cultural backgrounds can lack the confidence to flourish in a professional environment. One junior female colleague wanted to learn how to be more assertive, so we sent her on a confidence course where she learned how to better engage with clients and also how to ensure her voice is heard in meetings with colleagues. Now she’s flying! Mentoring programmes are also an excellent way to help new joiners from different backgrounds to settle in and thrive. Implement one to provide advice in your particular field, but also to help build confidence, plan career progression and develop core skills.

The need for fresh legislation

Individual companies can only do so much. If we’re going to make real advances as a society and boost diversity and inclusion, we need Government to help. Legislation can be a powerful tool for executing change. Larger companies are already required to report annually on their gender pay gap, and are encouraged to increase female representation on their executive boards. That is all well and good. However, there is no legal requirement for companies to measure and report ethnic diversity and pay gaps. That should change.

Act now!

Of course, companies don’t need to wait to be forced to act. There are some real trailblazers across our industry, such as GlaxoSmithKline, the only major pharma business with a woman at its helm and with one of the smallest gender pay gaps. Or the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, which published its ethnicity pay gap for the first time earlier this year. We need more industry leaders to act now. Think about how you can measure, report and promote diversity. Make it easier for employees to share their ethnicity (it’s not always obvious!), champion race equality from the top of your organisation, and improve the way you hire and retain BAME talent.

Shairose Ebrahim is president and chief executive of imc group