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Career blogs

Embracing diversity, inclusion, and leadership in life science teams

Written by Maryia Khomich

Diversity, inclusion, and leadership. What unites these concepts and how do they impact life science team behavior and performance? In this article, we will explore current trends within the life science ecosystem.

Diversity is the range of personal, physical, and social differences each individual brings to the workplace. Diversity can be inherent (related to age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation), acquired (religious, cultural, or political beliefs, socioeconomic status, education, or professional experiences), and cognitive (different thinking and perspectives on how to deliver a task within a team). Diversity is crucial for attracting, promoting, and retaining talent in life science teams and organizations; it creates a sense of harmony among different people working towards the same goal. Diversity reveals not only different viewpoints and life experiences but also different styles of leadership and decision-making. Several scientific studies reported that team gender diversity leads to better science and discoveries. In other words, diverse teams – teams with different skills or experiences – are smarter, more productive, innovative, and resilient. Moreover, 76% of employees and job seekers consider workplace diversity to be an important factor when evaluating a new job offer.

Inclusion is about a sense of belonging, the value within a given organization or team, and “the quality of human experience”. A team can be diverse without being inclusive, and an inclusive working environment would be creating a space where people feel safe, accepted, valued, supported, and encouraged to grow and collaborate. Inclusion is reflected in an organization’s culture, and inclusion policy starts with empathy and compassion.
In recent years, transformation towards a more gender-equal and inclusive working environment for researchers has become a policy priority at the EU level. All higher education and research organizations funded through European Commission will be required to have a gender equality plan in place to be eligible for funding.

Managing highly diverse teams is always a challenge for a leader. To promote a truly diverse and inclusive culture in life sciences, diversity in leadership roles should be ensured. However, there is no singular factor that makes it more difficult for women to excel in the life science ecosystem. Common barriers that limit a woman’s potential are work-life imbalance, organizational bias against women, lack of support from senior leaders, lack of mentors and female role models in the organization, and limited networking opportunities. Companies with more female leaders perform better financially as stated in the EY survey on gender diversity and financial performance in life sciences. According to the study “UK Life Sciences 2020 – Board and Leadership Diversity” on the gender, racial and ethnic diversity on the boards of 132 Life Sciences private and public companies, women and racial or ethnic minorities represent only 14.7% and 7.3% of company board directors, respectively. Considering leadership teams below board level, over a quarter of companies have at least 30% of women. Similarly, in the past 5 years, the percentage of female professors has increased significantly, to 25.7%, 30.4%, and 43.5% for full, associate, and assistant professorships, respectively (The Dutch Network of Women Professors 2021 report).

Final thoughts
Promoting diversity, inclusion, and leadership literacy among individuals, teams, and institutions is a key factor in advancing equal opportunities for all in the life science sector. Many life science companies are becoming more open, transparent, and fair about their diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies and practices, which are also gaining more importance in the current and future employment landscape.
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