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UK biotech shows progress on diversity—and has more to do


Industry survey can guide efforts to broaden talent and investment, says Alina O’Keeffe

Until recently, there was little evidence on equity, diversity and inclusion in the UK biotech industry, either domestically or globally. To fill the gap, the BioIndustry Association (BIA) surveyed 30 member companies in a self-selected sample varying in size, investment stage and location, and covering more than 1,200 employees. 

The report on the results—the first benchmark of its kind—was published in March. The good news is that biotech and life sciences show strong overall inclusivity and diversity. On a measure of inclusion, defined as a sense of belonging, openness and trust, UK companies scored 72.7 per cent, compared with a global score of 62.2 per cent.

On diversity, data show that 51.2 per cent of respondents identified as women, while 19.6 per cent identified as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority, compared with 15 per cent for the UK population. There was general openness in self-reporting of sexual orientation, social mobility, physical ability, cognitive learning and mental health across the board. 

The bad news is that there are significant diversity gaps. Women make up only 32 per cent of senior executives and 26 per cent of chief executives. Gender balance is also skewed in scientific posts: women account for 35 per cent of biomanufacturing and engineering roles, and 30 per cent in digital and computational occupations. 

The BIA’s Women in Biotech programme aims to tackle this underrepresentation, offering in-person events, an online forum and a range of content, guidance and resources. This includes a recently launched mentoring programme pilot.

Black employees are also underrepresented in UK biotech, making up only 1.6 per cent of the workforce versus 3.5 per cent of the UK population. There are even fewer Black leaders.

At senior executive level, 13 per cent of respondents identified as members of racial or ethnic minorities. For chief executives, the figure is 11 per cent; none are women from Black or minority ethnic backgrounds.

Support initiatives

While the survey shows that UK bioindustry is seen as having an inclusive culture, fair and transparent management and supportive career development, there is clearly work to do to ensure diverse talent can access biotech careers and increase the sector’s diversity. Initiatives such as the Johnson & Johnson Stem Scholars Programme to support Black science students in London, and the British Neuroscience Association’s support for students and early career researchers from underrepresented groups, may improve this picture.

Investors have high expectations around diversity and inclusion. For example, the Investor Leadership Network, a group of 12 global institutional investors, has published an Inclusive Finance Playbook setting standards to measure the performance of its portfolio companies. Oxford Science Enterprises, a venture capital firm partnering with the University of Oxford, works with portfolio companies on diversity and inclusion strategies.

However, there’s also a lack of diversity among investors. Only 14 per cent of angel investors are women and less than 11 per cent are from ethnic minorities. UK biotech and the investment community must work together to attract more women and investors from diverse backgrounds, to ensure that the investment ecosystem reflects the diversity of UK biotech. 

The report also yields insights into social mobility. Having parents with a doctorate seems to be an advantage to progressing into leadership positions: more than a third of those in senior roles grew up in a household containing a PhD holder. Below this level, the figure is 21 per cent. 

Improving social mobility would go a long way to redressing the industry’s serious skills shortage in research, development and manufacturing positions.

Guiding improvement

The report’s benchmark data provide a point of reference. The BIA is also creating guidance to help its members address prevalent problems and challenges. One key recommendation is for more UK biotechs to start collecting their own diversity and inclusion data.

The survey shows that firms can improve inclusion through targeted career development and mentoring, helping employees to feel that a senior colleague is creating opportunities and is invested in their growth. Leaders need to champion action to cultivate safe workplaces, challenge stereotypes in recruitment and support inclusive recruiting and hiring practices. 

For the UK’s life sciences and biotech sector to thrive, it needs to attract and nurture talented innovators from diverse backgrounds, who can access investment and retain talent in a highly competitive market. Building a more diverse and inclusive biotech sector will take a sustained collaborative effort. 

Alina OKeeffe is head of marketing and membership communications at the BioIndustry Association

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight