I had the opportunity to contribute an article to Life Science Leader magazine about the state of diversity and inclusion in the life science industry. Aman Khera, Global Head of Regulatory Strategy at Worldwide Clinical Trials answers my questions about the state of diversity and inclusion specifically in the cell and gene sector. Khera details the diversity and inclusion challenges facing the sector and how the sector creates a culture of equality to combat those issues. She provides advice for minority groups as they advance their educations and careers in the cell and gene sector.
What are the major and minor diversity and inequality issues facing the cell and gene sector? Explain in detail.
Khera: Diversity and inequality issues are across the board, not just in this sector. Although strides have been made in other industries, for example the tech space, still not enough has been done. These issues have been highlighted repeatedly this year.
There are two pillars in this space that are equally as important; recruiting, retaining and developing a workforce from all different dimensions of diversity, and combining that with the sense of urgency to ensure the sector is continuing its development of therapies and products to serve underserved populations with an empathic and respectful lens. If the sector fails to recruit, retain and develop a workforce that is truly diverse, then we will be far less successful in innovative developments in our sector.
By missing out on a diverse workforce, you will find that there is a knock-on effect on understanding and reaching out to underserved populations. Not only are you setting yourself up for failure with innovation and success, but you are limiting the diversity that is brought to the table and the lenses that diversity brings forth. I cannot emphasize enough that these two pillars are equally important in our sector. Of course, there are major and minor initiatives that fall within these two basic pillars and we will discuss these a bit later.
How is the cell and gene sector creating a culture of equality to combat the issues detailed in the first question?
Khera: The cell and gene sector is in a unique position. We have had to be nimble and understanding, typically when products are under development in this sector, and it serves the populations that are underserved, such as rare disease communities. These communities have not had their voices heard, but now there is more amplification of voices from these various populations adding insight into their struggles with conditions and diseases that may not have been understood or even recognized. We have had to be creative and innovative, breaking barriers and engaging communities to hear their voices.
Of course, the underserved patient population is just one dimension of the groups. I have seen more resources, discussions, and calls to action within the sector than ever before to combat the issues and barriers that exist for many groups. Although I emphasize that these are the beginnings of the diversity and equality journey, it should not and will not stop there.
Every group needs to have the same momentum to ensure equality. This equality in the speed of momentum is a hard one. After all, sometimes we are still pondering on gender equality when we should equally be looking at people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, veterans and neurodivergent people. This is an undertaking, but as a global sector, we have the strength and conversations are occurring in the mainstream within our sector.
What work still needs to be done to promote and drive a culture of equality and inclusion?
Khera: There is still much work to be done. Conversations have certainly begun, and it is encouraging hearing of how there are more resources than ever before with an overarching commitment for our sector to drive that culture of diversity, equality and inclusion. I have noticed more leaders in the sector discussing their journeys of self-reflection by learning and listening. These are encouraging times and proof it’s not just a short-lived band-aid approach. Companies in the sector are making their commitments public and are building the measurement of metrics behind it.
I have heard of multicultural employee resource groups formed, surveys being issued, focus groups formed, DEI experts advising leadership and organizing trainings. There is talk of mentoring and looking at hiring processes. We must not forget about hiring a diverse workforce as one aspect, but the other side of the coin is how to retain them and develop minority groups. Programs and initiatives that have been used before, such as entry level and leadership programs, need to be assessed to determine whether there are facets of exclusion. Our sector will only be able to progress if there is openness to all.
Overall, there is well needed disruption that is occurring in all facets of the sector. By undertaking these steps, it moves us closer to listening to all patient voices for all disease states, in addition to understanding the differences that exist, for example in different races for disease states.
Has COVID-19 shined a light on inequality in the cell and gene space?
Khera: The time during the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light in a couple of different ways, firstly, in the inequity of how different populations, particularly people of color, have access to healthcare. In addition, social justice issues have come to the forefront and rightly so. The research for COVID-19 therapies has highlighted the disparities of underserved populations within clinical research. Similar to how rare disease communities have had to have their voices heard and championed by patient advocacy groups, this may be an opportunity to continue on with the engagement, but expanding with underserved populations overall, at different levels, and taking a long hard look at the barriers in the sector.
Beyond COVID-19, what are the initiatives the cell and gene sector is taking to support and ensure diversity and inclusion efforts?
Khera: Solutions to these barriers will come via innovation from a diverse workforce. Companies must constantly consider evolving their present diversity, equality, and inclusion programs. In fact, there will be some companies that need to implement programs. It is not enough now to just have a statement on the company website; there will need to be actionable commitments, and the transparency of determined metrics that the sector will evolve towards. The pandemic has forced the sector to listen and adapt in ways that were not perhaps as sympathetic as they are now. I’d like to think that this pandemic has brought us back to thinking in a more humane way, technological advances aside; we are all involved in this sector as we want to make a positive impact to patients and to people.
What are your suggestions for equality initiatives in cell and gene companies?
Khera: Think about whether your teams are diverse or not. If you cannot see the different dimensions of diversity in your company, then it is going to be hard to even have that diversity of thought which leads to innovation and success.
It is imperative that initiatives are undertaken with open hearts and open minds. I have always thought that the beginning of equality initiatives in companies starts with self-reflection; only then you can start looking outwards.
Learn about privilege and bias, take a deep dive into what your company culture is truly like, and listen to your team. It is important to give voices to those that may not have been comfortable in speaking up. There are creative ways for those opportunities and there is not a one size fits all approach.
I think the basic grounding is to ensure leadership and management in companies understand the business imperative for diversity, equality and inclusion so that initiatives can be cascaded to the workforce accordingly. Support is always needed from leadership and management.
As a leader in the healthcare industry, what is your actionable advice to minority groups as they advance their education / career in the space?
Khera: Over my 20+ year career in the industry, I have spoken to many people from minority groups, and these conversations are more amplified now than ever before. As a woman of Punjabi descent, born in London, UK, living in Vancouver, Canada, and being a woman of visible Sikh faith, of course there have been multiple barriers. However, I have taken opportunities that have been available to me.
I would advise people from minority groups to recognize your own intersectionality of identity. Identity is not just one dimension of diversity. I strongly recommend advocating and championing for safe zones in companies and educational establishments that allow for your authentic self to shine. I have taken opportunities to seek out mentors from all walks of life within the industry.
I can’t recommend it enough to seek out mentors. I may just touch base on a quarterly basis, others more frequently. Seek out mentors in the space and outside of the company you are in. Do not be afraid to ask!
Now more than ever there is a vast wealth of knowledge, resources, and programs that are available. I recommend utilizing them. Finally, raise your voice and find pathways to be heard. Highlighting struggles and barriers are compelling reasons for leadership and management to make change wherever you are. Navigating the landscapes requires speaking up, being agile, adapting and evolving our own selves.
I predict what we will see in the sector more and more is transparency and accountability to all minority groups. There is no “one size fits all” approach and the sector's strengths will come from understanding the complexities involved with actionable commitments. Emotional intelligence plays a key part of understanding the different lenses that can come together for success in the sector.