A Firsthand Perspective of Pharma’s Failures with DE&I

Let’s talk digital transformation! In January, I started my series by identifying five key components of a successful digital transformation. We covered the first one by looking at Organizational Structures, today, let’s dive into the second which is the toughest, not just for pharma, but for the entire country: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I).

When we look at DE&I in pharma, how well we are doing depends on who you ask. I represent three areas of DE&I: women, differently abled, and Black/African American—a group that gets overlooked and underserved.

And Houston, we have a problem. There is little to no representation from Black and LatinX communities in pharma. There has been significant movement since George Floyd’s killing and the social justice protests that his death birthed, but the movement has mostly been confined to mouths. Lips are saying all the right things, but where are the results?

Fierce Pharma shared a list of brands that do it best in 2022, and my Blackness immediately rejected it. Bayer, where I was the Executive Director of Digital Media Strategy and Operations was the top brand. Bayer has received a lot of positive recognition for its efforts to increase representation from LGBTI+, Asian, and female communities. They also get a nod for expanded efforts for differently abled people, a push for gender parity in leadership, and a goal to expand efforts to use diverse suppliers that reflect the U.S. population. But plans specific to Black and Hispanic communities? Those don’t exist. And, it reinforces a concern I had when I was on Bayer’s DE&I Council—where are the efforts to support those two communities?

The problem is not isolated to Bayer. If you look at the 10 companies on the list, all lack a significant, profound effort to reach Black and LatinX communities. These awards strike me as equivalent to participation trophies. They have DE&I efforts, but they are not robust or equitable and the focus is on all the groups except these two.

DE&I in Pharma Lacks Representation

Why is this egregious? DE&I was born out of the Civil Rights Movement, and was another step in the long, brutal fight that is part of being Black in America. Yet, the biggest beneficiary of affirmative action (also born of Civil Rights and adjacent to DE&I) has been white women. Not only has it not benefited us significantly, but businesses, the government, and PEOPLE, found a way to make it most beneficial for white women.

Bayer has promised gender parity at all management levels by 2030, so white women are in the pole position. Having worked at Bayer, the only high-ranking titles for Black people tend to be confined to DE&I roles and the output of those teams has been improved standing for white women and Asians. Another fun fact—the U.S. lifted restrictions on immigration from Asian countries because of our fight for Civil Rights. How is that possible? Our efforts have benefited all the groups that are an over index and a focus of pharma DE&I but our group and the LatinX community.

I quit the council for a few reasons—let’s discuss some of them.

1. We hired an outside firm to oversee the DE&I council. A white firm. You know what would have been more appropriate, and a clear actionable step forward? Hiring a firm from the communities impacted! Why waste that alley oop opportunity?

2. The DE&I Council was heavily white. I felt outraged when a white team member said people need to be patient. Patient? May I remind everyone that we spent centuries in bondage, decades under Jim Crow, and are still not treated equitably in our own country?

3. The council had little representation from Black and LatinX employees. There was significant representation from Asian and White communities—and a smattering from all others. How did that happen? When I questioned the impact, the company shared our internal numbers. The company is ~4% Hispanic and ~4% Black, while Asian representation is ~15%. That means the company is ~77% white. (According to the U.S. Census, Whites comprise ~60% of the U.S. population, Asians ~6%, Black ~14%, and LatinX ~19%.)

It became clear to me why the efforts were not reaching LatinX and Black communities. You cannot solve diversity issues while also excluding the groups who have been most harmed. The LatinX and Black representation was also stagnant because the churn rate of employees from these communities is higher. Why do we leave more often?

Because it is painful, isolating, and mentally and psychologically damaging. Like white people, we typically live in communities that reflect us. My life outside of work is as Black as me. In pharma, I am often the only Black person in the room and it is obvious that my coworkers had little to no regular, authentic engagement with Black people. The pharma corridor and the towns surrounding where Bayer, Novartis, and several other brands are located, look exactly like the lack of diversity in pharma. There is an over index for Asian and white people and very few LatinX and Black people. That is weird! How, in the diverse New York metro area, did people manage to build a life that excludes Black and LatinX people?

I felt terrible every day. Leading the media team, I can assure you our engagement with these communities mirrored the company’s engagement with us as employees. As an industry, if we truly want to help everyone, we must include everyone. Less lips moving and more tangible actions are critical as the country and regulations change.

LatinX and Black are the fastest growing racial demos in the U.S. LatinX and Black communities combined will be the majority by 2042. Do we believe that we will magically get to know them and be able to engage? Will we increase hiring from the communities? And, with the law requiring diversity in clinical trials, do we believe the only hindrance was that no law existed? The vaccine hesitancy was real and not just about the vaccine—Black people do not trust the pharma industry. Or the doctors. For valid reasons. The industry must develop a relationship with us, address the concerns, and build trust. You need us to do that.

The most educated native born American is a Black woman. The most educated immigrant to America is an African. New Jersey and New York have an over index for Black and LatinX. New York City is ~23% Black and ~29% LatinX, while New Jersey is ~15% Black and 21.5% LatinX. If you cannot find us to hire, it’s time to leave your neighborhood and look outside of your company (or the pharma industry). It is nonsensical to have a pharma requirement for sales and marketing roles, particularly when historically the industry has not hired us. Those are functional, not medical roles—industry experience means you only draw from a deep well of white and Asian candidates and a dried-up puddle of LatinX and Black people. FYI—it’s offensive to drive diversity with internships and entry-level roles.

Making DE&I More Actionable

Had I not hired my team from my network, I could have gone months without interacting with Black people. When has that happened to white people? If you have not been the “other,” I challenge you to seek that experience and imagine it being your entire professional life. Our needs are invisible in patient outreach and key opinion leader (KOL) selection because we are invisible.

As an industry, we must take a hard look at the systemic issues that drive rejection from LatinX and Black communities. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Experiments on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present is a great resource to understand the magnitude of the issue. Since people typically spend entire careers in pharma, I have a little (a lot) of side-eye for the lack of due diligence.

Should I trust people with my health who know nothing about me? That don’t try to know and actively apply an (un)conscious bias to our treatment? That has not worked well for us—hello Tuskegee Experiment! Like patients, we are not a monolith, but many of us are uncomfortable putting our lives in the hands of people who historically (or currently) have not been good stewards.

Our discomfort extends beyond the medical interactions. When you walk into an environment where almost no one looks like you and the few people who do are certainly not in leadership positions, discomfort is just life. We are ALWAYS uncomfortable. Imagine constant discomfort in a country where we were born, and our country’s default setting in life and business is our discomfort.

This conversation, this work, this education will not be easy, but it is necessary. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are morally right, and more profitable. With the changing demographics and regulations, there’s no time for the long processes, slow walk to acceptable levels of representation, and lack of DE&I budgets. Your company’s revenue will depend on figuring this out.

As an industry we need to define and implement ways to make DE&I more actionable and embedded in our daily routines—inside and outside of work. Three areas that we need to discuss in-depth: 1) Recruiting and Employee Retention, 2) Supply Chain Requirements, and 3) Medical Disparities. So, check out the resources I linked to above for a better understanding of the systemic issues we must work to resolve. We have so much work to do!

But of course, my series focuses on digital transformation and none of the five areas I mentioned in my first article function in a silo. So next, we will discuss how to apply the right organizational structure and DE&I to develop an inclusive omnichannel marketing strategy.

  • Erica N. Hawthorne

    Erica N. Hawthorne is Owner, Principal Consultant at The People People, a consultancy focused on true diversity, equity, and inclusion and authenticity in advertising. Erica has worked in digital marketing for 20 years, including for notable brands such as Bayer, Marriott International, USAToday.com, Burberry, Mandarin Oriental, Black Rock, Dow Jones, Forevermark, Colgate, and The J.M. Smucker Company. She transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry in 2019 to bring representation and awareness to medical disparities and systemic racism in healthcare.


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