The smart move: LGBTQ+ talent in life sciences

The data is out there: numerous studies have established the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including a global report by Forbes, which says it brings “the different perspectives that a company needs to power its innovation strategy” together. Whether it’s in biotech, pharma, medical devices or digital health, breakthroughs and innovations are fundamental to these businesses. So harnessing a wider pool of talent – including those from the LGBTQ+ community  – is critical, particularly with the government heralding the UK as a global hub of excellence in life sciences.  

STEM subjects have, however, traditionally been seen as heterosexual and male-dominated fields. A 2021 Science Advances survey of more than 25,000 STEM professionals found that LGBTQ+ workers are ‘more likely to experience career limitations, harassment and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ+ peers’. Around 28% of LGBTQ+ scientists, for example, have at some point considered resigning because of a hostile workplace or prejudice. More than one third (35%) of LGBTQ+ staff across UK workforces have also hidden who they are over fear of discrimination, according to Stonewall. At university – part of the ‘leaky pipeline’ for minority groups studying STEM – LGBTQ+ students are 20% more likely to drop out of these degrees than women.

Nurturing talent

Dr Alfredo Carpineti (he/him) is Chair and Co-Founder of UK-based charity Pride in STEM. He believes the “untapped potential” in the LGBTQ+ community is enormous. “For an LGBTQ+ person, straight woman or someone of colour, getting three science degrees likely comes with many barriers. So they have a huge drive and passion to succeed, which needs to be harnessed.”

Carpineti says a lot of companies have told him they get a range of diverse people as junior staff but struggle to hold onto them. “They are likely treating LGBTQ+ people and other underrepresented groups like any other workers and not listening to them properly, because they just assume one-size-fits-all.” It is important to glean “crucial insight” from LGBTQ+ communities about their specific needs and possible solutions to some of the barriers to a successful career in life science, he stresses.   

Fostering role models is also critical, and a big focus for his charity. “We want to challenge the idea in society that LGBTQ+ people don’t go into science and show that there are many working successfully at the vanguard of science.”

Getting intentional

According to a report by the Science Industry Partnership (SDI), many businesses already have well established inclusion, diversity and equity (ID&E) practices in place. But to help all companies develop a fully inclusive business culture, the SDI recommends employers use its ID&E checklist to measure their organisation’s activities and share best practice.

Carpineti believes it is still very much “hit and miss” in terms of the support that companies provide.

Jae Sloan (they/them), Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Proud Science Alliance (PSA), feels that overall we are seeing a raised consciousness but says: “In terms of how this translates, I think there is some way to go for people to be able to show up to work and be themselves. Progress is still patchy.”

Sloan, who spent two decades working in a multinational pharma organisation and has years of leadership in LGBTQ+ inclusion, adds: “Some companies are super progressive and the new ones, including the biotechs, really want to get this right from the start and are generally really intentional about inclusion. And the data is clear – it will support performance and innovation.”

Carpineti and Sloan agree that new life science businesses have a real opportunity to attract the diverse mindsets and talent of LGBTQ+ professionals because they can create a crystal-clear structure from the outset around how they approach inclusion, diversity and equity.

Sloan says most senior business leaders, including in more established companies, are on board and understand the concept of inclusion. “They’re often just a bit stuck about what to do and worry about getting it wrong. But we all make mistakes and I would urge people to tap into their courage.”

Being active

Miguela Gonzalez (she/her), head of diversity and inclusion at biotech Abcam, a Stonewall Global Diversity Champion, says: “If you create a team of talented people from a wide range of backgrounds, they will each contribute their own unique ways of thinking, different ways of responding to stimuli and different approaches to problem solving.

“Naturally, the end result will be innovation. That’s critically important in biotech, where we innovate, problem solve and challenge the status quo at pace and with passion. That’s the only way we’ll be able to serve the global science community better.”

Gonzalez says Abcam is “constantly looking at best practice and striving to role model LGBTQ+ inclusion across the sector”. Its employee resource group, Abcam Rainbow Community, works hard to raise awareness of what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ in life science, she explains, adding that “the most important thing is to be active in this space.”

Biopharma Vertex is another organisation ranked highly as a great place to work for LGBTQ+ equality. Anne-Soline Thorndike (she/her), VP Human Resources, says: “We are the most innovative, make the best decisions for patients and build the highest performing teams when we have an inclusive, diverse and equitable workforce and culture.”

She believes there’s a company culture at Vertex where everyone feels comfortable bringing their authentic self to work, adding: “Creating a sense of belonging is crucial to our ability to create transformative medicines and recruit and retain the best talent.”

One enabler is its employee resource network, Vertex PRIDE, which is all about career satisfaction, offering a safe space for sharing experiences and discussing sometimes challenging topics. Other initiatives include a reverse mentoring programme, where LGBTQ+ members coach and mentor the organisation’s senior leadership team, around workplace and diversity issues. 

Happy workers

Trans scientist Dr Clara Barker (she/her), a vocal LGBTQ+ mentor and role model, was originally a high school drop-out. “I see many young LGBTQ+ people in the exact same position I was in all those years ago. I did get back into education, but I could just as easily fallen off the map and had nothing to do with science. There is so much talent out there and we are losing it all the way through. If people are leaving, why are they leaving?”

Barker is someone whose own experiences means she understands very well the importance of feeling comfortable in the workplace. “You’re going to be getting more out of your workforce if they're happy, and they'll be happier if they know they can be themselves at work.”

For many years in the science and engineering industries, Barker saw only two out gay scientists and no trans people and felt she couldn’t come out and transition. “I was depressed and wasn’t working to the best of my abilities.” On the edge of becoming another STEM deserter eight years ago, Barker got a job offer from the University of Oxford. “I felt supported enough to transition and come out openly. My happiness and productivity at work probably went up by 200%, just by not hiding who I was.”

By truly focusing on inclusion, diversity and equity, companies can create an environment in which underrepresented groups like LGBTQ+ people can thrive. As Vertex’s Thorndike says, these principles aren’t just the right thing to do; they are essential, because “business depends on it”.


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