Last week the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) held its annual international convention, this year in San Diego. For four days more than 16,000 attendees gathered to meet, sit in panel meetings, network and attend receptions, like the opening gala at Petco Park, pictured above.
On the first full day of the conference, BIO released a set of principles on diversity. The need for an official set of principles is obvious, even to BIO itself. Julie Gerberding, the executive vice president and chief patient officer at Merck, spent the past year chairing BIO’s workforce development, diversity and inclusion (WDDI) committee and establishing the principles. It is “striking,” she says, “when you first come into the organization and take a look around the table and realize, at least in terms of visible diversity, you’re not really looking like we should in this day and age.”
BIO is the largest and most prominent trade association for the global biotech industry, she noted, and its medicines, its crops, its fuels and enzymes, are aimed at everyone. The leadership needs to reflect that, Gerberding says, never mind that companies “with a broad and diverse leadership framework do better. No one refutes that position anymore.”
The principles include a commitment by BIO to “be outward-facing” in its diversity efforts, with diversity defined as a “wide-range of similarities and differences among persons and perspectives,” which follows the definition set forth by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Inclusion is described as “a business culture and environment that recognizes and effectively leverages the talents, skills, and perspectives of diverse employees,” and workforce development entails “ensuring all employees have the opportunities to develop the capabilities and skills required to meet the challenging needs in the biotechnology industry.”
How all this will be accomplished both inside BIO and in its member companies isn’t yet clear. The committee has identified eight areas around diversity to focus on, and over the coming weeks it will prioritize them and establish goals. Helen Torley, president and CEO of Halozyme, and new WDDI committee chair, says the idea is to gather metrics for each area and then measure progress. But, for starters, BIO will lead by example and undergo training for unconscious bias, which can cause discrimination against minorities in the hiring process, and the committee will also analyze the biotech pipeline of biomedical researchers. For instance, Torley says, “we know a lot of women graduate with [STEM] degrees but they are not advancing. This is a loss of people that could be future leaders or board members.”
It isn’t the first time BIO has considered diversity. The group held panel discussions at previous conferences and has long supported organizations such as Women in Bio. But it is the first time it has adopted specific principles it can be held accountable for. Over the past year, the biotech industry has been facing its gender inequality, and the principles come amid a broader global reckoning on race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and more. The principles are only a starting place, and the industry has a long way to go, as BIO freely admits, but there are two types of organizations: ones that recognize a problem when it arises, and ones that ignore it. BIO can be credited for recognizing the problem.