Is Your Diversity Diverse Enough?

March 7, 2006
Initiatives that focus on women and minorities may miss the big picture.

By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

Being African American opened doors for Wyeth Vaccines manufacturing supervisor Henry Ragin when he broke into the industry in the 1970s. “Companies just weren’t hiring black men, and people like me were sometimes brought in to satisfy laws,” he says. "They later realized that we could really perform.”

Ragin, who’s had many employers in his 30-plus years in the industry, says that the diversity initiatives he’s seen have had some success — paving the way for women, including black women, to achieve executive ranks and make their mark in the industry. Ragin believes that diversity programs don’t accomplish much today because, well, they just aren’t diverse enough. Too many groups are ignored — especially black men, and underprivileged youths of all ethnic backgrounds who lack the resources to pursue the degrees needed to enter and advance in the industry. “Diversity programs might be recognized by the press, but usually they’re just for show,” he says.

This year, our magazine paid more attention to diversity in its annual job satisfaction and salary survey (see "2006 Job Satisfaction and Salary Survey: Are You Boxed In?" ). We included questions about gender and race issues in the pharmaceutical world: Was life in drug facilities fair for women and minorities these days? Does discrimination still exist? Are salaries equitable with those of white men?

Your responses — and there were many — were hardly indifferent. Women and minorities said that they still feel slighted when it comes to equal opportunities and equal pay in the plant. But white men, too, feel put out. Men are excluded from upward mobility, some said. Discrimination now runs in reverse, said others. “Unqualified women and minorities get all of the opportunities for advancement,” one man said. “White males don’t get any.”

Some of the vitriol is expected. Let’s not fool ourselves, says Deborah Dagit, Merck’s executive director of diversity and work life, diversity programs are inherently controversial. But are we defining diversity too narrowly?

Leslie Alexandre, president and CEO of the North Carolina Biotech Center (Research Triangle Park, N.C.), thinks so. Pharmaceutical and other corporations tend to think of diversity in terms of how many women and minorities, and sometimes homosexuals, they hire and have on board at any given time, she says. But what about the diversity of age? Alexandre wonders. And religion, nationality, politics and so on?

"Employers tend to fill roles, rather than looking for diversity of all types,” Alexandre says. “Our tendency is to surround ourselves with people just like us. But we have to get over that to compete in the global economy. Hopefully, what we need to do to be successful will help to drive some of those changes.”

The danger of a myopic diversity is that it excludes many underprivileged groups that are in real need of support — for example, downsized, over-40 experts, divorced single parents or those who have gained most of their education “on the job.” And it can become an albatross for, say, women and African Americans who are held up as models of the success of diversity programs. “Perceptions tend to become reality,” says Alexandre. “When we pull out one factor as the reason why things are happening in someone’s career, it’s a problem.”

True workforce diversity, for Nancy Wisenski, president of EMD Pharmaceuticals (Durham, N.C.), is a by-product of hiring practices that “cast a wide net.” Wisenski is also the founder and president of the local chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, an organization that supports the advancement of women in the healthcare and life sciences industries by providing mentoring, networking and career-development opportunities. “The broader your candidate group, the more likely that you’re going to find the right person,” she says.

And more often than not, she says, that person will have characteristics and skills that will enhance the diversity of the workplace. “You accomplish the goal of diversity almost by not focusing on it,” she says.

And that’s what she tells young women trying to make it in the industry. Don’t play the woman card. Work hard, stay current, leverage your strengths and success will follow.

Merck’s Dagit believes that diversity programs can suffer from being too presumptuous about what women and minority groups want and need, without asking them. Corporations shouldn’t abide by the Golden Rule, says Dagit. The fallacy of this, she says, is that it presupposes being able to understand what motivates others to act. “How can you know that unless you use yourself as a point of reference?” Dagit asks.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers should open their doors to diverse employees, Dagit says, but then not expect conformism. “You need to look at what elements of your culture need to be stretched to allow people to contribute,” she says.

When that happens, Dagit says, true diversity follows. The most talented and tenacious job seekers — no matter what race, religion or sexual orientation — will beat a path to your door. And that, she says, becomes a competitive advantage.