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Diversity in the Laboratory

As NexMed's director of human resources, Linda Burns often sends flowers to hospitalized employees.

Bob Calandra
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As NexMed's director of human resources, Linda Burns often sends flowers to hospitalized employees. But she has learned that what is a sincere, feel-good gesture in one culture, can be an affront in another. When Burns recently ordered a get-well bouquet, she didn't realize that the floral arrangement's white color was an insult in the employee's culture. It took several phone calls and some explaining, but Burns was finally able to smooth over the social blunder.

"There are many cultural differences," says Burns, who oversees 50 employees, including five scientists, at the pharmaceutical and medical device company's New Jersey headquarters. "Diversity training is something [that everyone] needs at every level, even managers."

As the global marketplace erases geographical boundaries, it becomes increasingly important to have diversity in the workplace. "If you don't have diversity in the lab, then you probably don't have enough perspective from the people who have a...

WHAT DOES DIVERSITY LOOK LIKE?

While there is no set diversity formula, Burns says the ideal pharmaceutical or biotech company would reflect the country as a whole. For universities, the goal is to mirror the school's graduate student population because it represents the pool of future faculty members, according to Martha Pollack, a professor of engineering and member of the Diversity in Science Committee at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"At a minimum you'd like to see the representation of faculty to be proportional to the representation of the graduate student body," says Pollack. "I want to see different perspectives all brought to the table when it comes time to solve problems. We're not trying to counsel people to lower their standards to hire more women. We are saying work harder to find more qualified women."

NexMed's five scientists are mostly women and Asian/Pacific Islanders, making the company the exception to the rule. But there are no African Americans or Hispanics on staff. "My guess is there just aren't that many African Americans or Hispanic scientists available as candidates for jobs," Burns says. And while Burns would like a more diverse group, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. "We are really looking first and foremost to find someone who can get what we need done," she says.

Kenneth Arroyo Roldan challenges the argument that there just aren't enough highly qualified women and minority life scientists. As CEO of Wesley, Brown & Bartle Company, a diversity search firm in New York, Roldan says minorities tend to gravitate toward government and university labs, which he says make a greater effort to recruit them. Minorities are still underrepresented in pharmaceutical and biotech laboratories, he says.

Gibbs believes that students self-select out of the sciences for economic reasons. "It's not an attractive field for minorities because of money," he says. "Research doesn't pay well. And science is probably one of the last true apprenticeships in the world. If you are going to be a good scientist, you have to get in the lab and work for somebody." Another reason minority students aren't choosing science, he says, is a lack of role models. The science community, Gibbs says, must reach out to kids at an early age. "I think you have to start making kids understand that science and math are great fields and you can be successful and make a difference," Gibbs says.

In its 2000 report, the Congressional Committee on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development noted that girls and underrepresented minorities tend to be discouraged from pursuing careers in science. It supported a call for higher-quality math and science classes and equal access to technology for all students. The report also acknowledges that bringing more women and minorities into science will not be easy and will require an influx of cash to do so.

INCREASING DIVERSITY

Many universities and academic institutions have management teams and task forces that focus on diversity. At M.D. Anderson, Gibbs and others encourage department chairs to review hiring practices, search new talent pools, and conduct objective interviews. Gibbs' team also visits labs to educate team leaders about diversity and how to help minority, female, and foreign postdocs to assimilate.

In addition, M.D. Anderson established a partnership with the University of Puerto Rico in 2002. The program promotes faculty and student exchanges and aims to increase the number of Hispanic science students who become oncologists and cancer researchers. "The long-term goal is to develop a bond and get graduates to come and be on our faculty," says Gibbs. Developing a road map is a sound way to approach diversity. Once the policy is set and the definitions clear, it should be made public.

Companies interested in increasing diversity can use executive search firms or establish programs to help locate qualified candidates. In July, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals selected Wesley, Brown & Bartle Company to aid in increasing the diversity of employees at the PhD and MD level.

Beverly, Mass.-based Agencourt Bioscience, the country's largest genomic sequencing facility, launched a minority-training program for undergraduate students in 2004. The program arose from a grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute, which launched an action plan in 2001 to increase underrepresented minorities in genomics. In addition, the Department of Energy's "Diversity Best Practices" award was presented to Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2004 for an online calendar that promotes diversity awareness.

EASING MISUNDERSTANDINGS

Adding a diverse perspective is good for both business and science, says Myrtle P. Bell, associate professor of management at the University of Texas, Arlington. Bell cites studies showing that diversity leads to unique and creative solutions to difficult problems. A 1993 study of cultural diversity's impact on interaction process and performance1 showed that heterogeneous groups performed better and developed more creative solutions to problems than did homogeneous groups.

"Diverse teams look at problems differently," says Bell, the incoming program chairman of the Academy of Gender and Diversity for the Academy of Management. "They see whatever problem they are trying to resolve from a different lens."

Companies can help ease the transition for employees who might not look or sound exactly like their co-workers. Bell suggests employers make it clear to their staff that an employee was hired for the quality of their work and nothing else. "There is still a lot of resistance to diversity because people think it is white versus black, men versus women, white versus Hispanic," she says. "People think other people are hired because of their diversity and not because they are qualified."

Providing a mentor who can help new employees understand the social dynamics inside the lab is equally important. "If they are not trained or socialized or don't know the ropes and don't know how the organization works, they will fail," Bell warns.

Language barriers can be a source of problems, adds Gibbs. If two people are speaking a language in front of a third person who doesn't understand what is being said, it can lead to misunderstandings. "The two things that come out is, 'They might be talking about me,"' Gibbs reports. "The other thing is, 'If I don't know what they are saying, I don't know if they are doing a good job.' We try to sit down with both sides and just bring out that it is not a question of belittling their culture, but under a certain set of circumstances you should speak a common language."

Research scientists across the world can expect to find themselves working side-by-side with people from different cultures, which can occasionally lead to misunderstandings. And while diversity will surely enhance scientific discovery, it is bound to also cause a few socially awkward, even litigious, moments. Nevertheless, universities and companies anxious to remain competitive are trekking toward diversity in the lab.

"It's not just a sociological thing," says Gibbs. "If you are going to do good science, you need to have good scientists who understand the issues and come at it from every angle you can think of."

Bob Calandra (bcalandra@the-scientist.com)

How Abbott Laboratories is making a difference

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Abbott Laboratories, in Abbott Park, Ill., is a diversity success story. In the last five years, women have filled 53% of the company's entry-level science positions, and minorities have filled 28%. During that same time period, the number of women in engineering and clinical research has increased by 94% and 88%, respectively.

Today, according to company data, nearly one-third of the company's more than 7,000 scientists are minorities, compared to the US average of 18%. Nearly one-half are women, while the national average falls around 33%. In addition, Abbott has made Fortune magazine's list of best places for minorities for the past seven years, as well as Working Mother magazine's list of top companies for four consecutive years.

Michelle Thomas, the company's director of corporate diversity, inclusion, and work life, explains that Abbott's efforts to diversify its workforce stepped up considerably when the current CEO, Miles D. White, took the helm in 1999. He built a $10 million, onsite daycare center and made the critical decision to tie manager's review and compensation to how well they hire and advance women and minorities, Thomas says. The daycare center is the fifth largest in the country, serving 700 children per week and offering "market competitive rates."

To bring in female and minority scientists, Abbott employed diversity search firms and partnered with organizations that represent both groups. Internally, mentoring programs have helped women and minorities progress through the ranks. Every employee has the option of flexible start and stop times, working from home, job sharing, and part-time employment, Thomas notes.

Without management accountability and commitment from the top, Abbott might not have made the changes it did in such a short time, Thomas says. "CEO commitment and executive team commitment is critical."

Sandra Burke, who is black and the manager of cardiovascular systems research at Abbott, says that when she first joined the company 17 years ago, few women worked in the pharmaceutical laboratories. Now, more women have become project leaders and corporate officers, and the change is good. "We are no longer relatively alone," she says. "I have found it gratifying to sit in a meeting where both the lead scientist and the lead patent attorney were African-American females."

Indeed, the number of minority scientists has increased at Abbott, Burke notes, but not equally for all groups. "I will be even more pleased when I see the numbers of minority laboratory employees, beyond those of Asian descent, increase commensurately," she says.

Isiah M. Warner of Louisiana State University helps minority PhD students find companies where they can excel. He says he is impressed by Abbott's recent changes: "I find it absolutely incredible."

Warner is particularly pleased to see that Abbott has included larger numbers of minority and female employees in upper management. According to company data, the number of women and minorities in Abbott's management has increased by 68% and 78%, respectively, in the last five years. Today, one-third of the company's management population is female. These trends suggest that women and minorities who join Abbott may find it easier to be promoted than in companies with less diversity in their upper ranks, Warner notes.

Warner had not realized that the company had made such significant changes to its workforce. Companies are often hesitant to publish diversity information, he notes, because if they are too diverse, they may risk reverse-discrimination suits, and if they are not diverse enough, that doesn't look good, either.

Elizabeth Ivey, president of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), is also impressed, but she says that Abbott should do more to publicize its efforts than simply making magazine lists and posting diversity information on its Web site http://www.abbott.com/news/facts/diversity.cfm. Postdoc and PhD students often don't read those magazine lists and are too busy to review every life science company's Web site. Consequently, many are not aware of the companies that have supportive environments for women and minorities, says Ivey. She suggests that Abbott consider asking more organizations that represent female and minority scientists, such as AWIS, to post a link to their site, or to list job openings.

Many of Abbott's changes are included in experts' recommendations to employers that want to diversify their companies, including the experts at Catalyst, a research and advisory organization that supports working women. "Corporations need to know that if they did this, it would make their hiring a lot easier," Ivey says.

- Alison McCook

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