White Women (In Pharma) Like Me: What Are We Doing?

First published 4/14/2021. Last edited: 4/26/2021. 

This post is, and will be, a work in progress.

I’m a white, blue-eyed, (occasional) blonde. Grew up in a loving, blue-collar, two-parent home. US citizen, native English speaker. I didn’t need braces, but if I had, I know, without a doubt, that Mum and Dad would have made orthodontics happen. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I am my parent’s American Dream writ large. 

Like all of us, yes, life has broken my heart and socked me in the gut a few times. Sorrow has been an uninvited dinner guest. But my ability to bounce (sometimes slowly) back, my (in the business journal parlance of today) “grit” is in no small part thanks to the fact that I have been given almost every advantage in life. 

The reason I see the glass half full has as much to do with my life experience as it does with my genetics or hardwiring.

And that life experience was scripted by race.

We have two very different clients these days, both of whom have (white) women in the C-suite. If you work in Pharma, you know this is unusual… maybe you get a female SVP of HR or Compliance. Still, a woman leading an organization as the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Commercial, Financial, or Medical Officer is uncommon even today. One of the clients invited me to sit in on a Launch Readiness Review (LRR) videoconference this week. Their headquarters are based in a large metropolitan area. Easily 20+ people in the Zoom gallery and every single one of them was white. No Blacks, no Asians, no Latinos, no South Asians. I *think* the Admin coordinating the call behind the scenes is African American. In my 1×1 with one of this company’s leaders, I mentioned my surprise to see so little diversity in the team, particularly given how progressive the company is with women in leadership roles.

She looks like me: white, pushing 50, straight, married, mom. She sighed (and to me, it sounded heartfelt) and said, “I know. It really is a problem.”

I have no idea how she’s trying to fix this. I don’t even know if she is. I’m just a consultant. These engagements are my family’s bread and butter. Do I play along? Sigh in tacit agreement?

White Women (in Pharma) Like Me: What Are We Doing? 

Because, let’s be real: if white men wanted to fix this problem, they would have done it by now.

Do we care enough to even try?

I hate writing about race. And my reasons are, admittedly, ugly:

  1. Ego: I don’t want to be accused of performative empathy
  2. Money: I don’t want to risk offending current clients. I worry about alienating future leads.
  3. Pride: I don’t want to say the wrong thing.

And what’s far worse, cringe-worthy, even: I have trouble believing I’m part of the problem. I casually mention that my husband is Mexican, brown, and an immigrant so I can go polish my “not racist” imaginary halo.

WOW, what a very healthy ego I must have if I think my temporary discomfort has any relative scale to the persistent inequities that Black Americans face every day. Ladies, we already know the numbers. We read the Vogue article and became indignant on Serena Williams’ behalf. We’ve stopped watching the news because it’s just so depressing. We teach our children that it’s what’s on the inside that matters. 

How’s that working out, America?

I am part of the problem. Institutional racism helps me. Silently perpetuating a racist workplace culture benefits me financially.

And my hunch is that for many reading this, it benefits you, too.

Let’s be honest: my livelihood, my ability to support my family as a consultant demands a certain degree of “likability.” People buy shoes based on style and fit; companies hire consultants based on competence and personality. 

Asking a potential client why every single Commercial Director and above is white won’t win me contracts. If I decided that I would work only with companies whose workforce AND leadership reflect the diversity of the patients they serve… well, I wouldn’t have been able to pay off my student loans. The US pharmaceutical workforce is less than 10% African American, 14% Asian, and 11% Latino*, and when you look at Senior Director roles and higher, those numbers drop precipitously. 

As someone who has worked in Big Pharma and Biotech Startups, I can say with confidence there are STILL plenty of Executive leadership teams where I would be “the diversity hire.”

I’ve never been shy about pushing my bosses, their bosses, or vendors to support women in leadership, specifically P&L roles. Why? Because I’m a woman in leadership! But have I been as diligent or conscientious about promoting and supporting leaders who don’t look like me?  

You already know the answer.

Self-indulgence makes for poor reading and even worse content marketing. Why go through this exercise if it’s going to be only academic?

Like, seriously, duh. It’s just words. Let’s talk dollars and doing:

I’m holding myself and Galway Group publicly accountable to change how Pharma and Biotech companies serve patients. I started my own business in large part to create a different way of working. We’re small and scrappy, and we’ll stumble, but good grief, we need to start somewhere:

  • We commit to donating 5% of 2021 client fees (pre-tax) to a local Women’s Business Center that creates economic opportunities for targeted communities. Our three-year goal is to increase that donation to 10% of all client fees by 2023. All of us need to feel a financial pinch if we’re going to affect any positive change in this country. 
  • We commit to 4 paid hours per week, per employee, to pro-bono work for patient advocacy groups and community health centers.
  • We will participate in the B-Impact assessment and share our strengths and opportunities on this website and in our client pitch decks.

There’s more, so much more, that we can and should be doing. Expect quarterly updates from us, and please do feel free to contact me with ideas or recommendations for action. And thank you in advance for your patience in us and for trusting that our intention is positive.