Op-Ed: Why the lack of diversity in drug industry leadership is hurting women and people of color

Dozens of pills are scooped into a bottle by a person holding a knifelike tool.
A prescription is filled at a pharmacy in Sacramento, Calif., in 2016.

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

If you’re a woman or person of color, your health is being hurt by a lack of diversity in healthcare.

I suddenly realized that a few years ago at a conference for pharma executives.

Dr. Lynn Seely, who was then the female chief executive officer of Myovant, a biopharmaceutical company that develops new treatments for women’s diseases, was speaking about chronic pelvic pain and painful periods associated with endometriosis. As many as 10% of women between age 15 and 45 experience it, and many of them miss school or work because of debilitating pain. Yet treatments often end with the removal of the uterus, ending hopes of childbearing.

Why, Seely asked, had pharma not developed a better treatment that didn’t involve infertility?


Silence ensued.

She kept going, saying she could see the discomfort visible on the faces of many of the male leaders in this room because she was talking about women’s periods and pelvic pain. Then she dropped the hammer: That is why this health problem hasn’t been solved.

Her point? A lack of diversity in healthcare leadership is directly related to the lack of progress on women’s health challenges.

While at Myovant, Seely proved a corresponding truth: Diverse companies can develop better treatments. She led its development of a more effective and non-invasive endometriosis drug, which has since been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

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Yet the broader crisis in healthcare remains. Generally, people with major unmet medical needs tend to look different from the leaders of healthcare companies. It’s no coincidence.

Pharma is overwhelmingly white and male, especially in the C-suite. Executive teams at biopharma companies in North America, Europe and Australia are less than a third female, according to an industry trade group. About one in five CEOs is female; only one in four is a person of color. In addition, racial diversity among pharma’s highest-ranking executives has recently declined.


The broader healthcare field is even worse: Only 1% of CEOs are women, the lowest percentage of any industry. And in the investor community, which overwhelmingly funds early drug development projects, only 16% of investment partners are women — and less than 2% of those women are Black or Hispanic.

Human nature, not malice, may cause the overwhelmingly white male healthcare industry to focus on treatments and cures for white men. People care more about things that affect their lives directly. Yet that doesn’t make the consequences any less heartbreaking. Some of the least-treated diseases overwhelmingly affect women and people of color.

For instance, sickle cell disease, which disproportionately appears in patients who are Black, and to a somewhat lesser extent Hispanic and South Asian. Compared with other diseases, there hasn’t been nearly the same level of investment or innovation, leaving millions of people suffering when existing technology has the potential to dramatically improve their quality of life.

Then there’s lupus. A shocking 90% of patients are women, and the disease is two to three times more prevalent among women of color than white women. Once again, medical advances with this life-destroying illness lag behind progress on other diseases. One defense often offered: Lupus is a complex disease, but that only proves the point. It hasn’t received the same funding and focus as “whiter” and “manlier” illnesses.

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The investor community isn’t helping. Black and Hispanic female entrepreneurs received a mere 0.43% of venture capital investment in 2020, reflecting venture capital’s lack of diversity. The very innovators who might cure these diseases are likely overlooked because of their race and gender.

If improving health and saving lives is the goal, the healthcare industry, especially pharma companies and their funders, should immediately make greater diversity a priority.

Company boards should abandon their long-held bias for hiring people with doctorates and medical degrees. These requirements make the hiring pool whiter than it should be, and while women have begun to close the educational gap, it will be years before sufficient numbers of them join the senior ranks.

Crucially, ensuring greater diversity can be done without lowering the quality of candidates. Fields such as computing and technology are at the cutting edge of drug development and are also trending more diverse, and these jobs don’t require a PhD. Pharma companies in particular should recruit the next generation of leaders from this broader talent pool.

Companies, universities and nonprofits can also work together to accelerate the training of diverse leaders. For example, the organization I lead — Roivant Social Ventures, a nonprofit devoted to improving health equity — recently launched a pioneering initiative that aims to give diverse candidates quicker hands-on experience with drug development and approval.

Ultimately, it gives them a faster path to senior leadership. They work with drugs that exist but aren’t being actively developed by companies, finding new ways to apply them to unmet patient needs. That’s exactly the kind of experience that companies look for in future executives — and that can take decades to acquire.

The people in charge of funding healthcare research and development ultimately shape which conditions will be treated and cured. Every day the status quo continues means more suffering, mainly for people who aren’t white men.

Lindsay Androski is president and CEO of Roivant Social Ventures, an independent director at Eloxx Pharmaceuticals and a trustee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.