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Black people still few and far between in biotech industry

Jonathan Wosen, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

SAN DIEGO -- San Diego biotechs are working to erase cancer, light up nerves during surgery and scan thousands of molecules with artificial intelligence.

The industry's workforce, however, is less futuristic than its goals.

Black people account for 6% of the county's overall workforce but just 3% of biotech, according to the San Diego Workforce Partnership. Hispanics or Latinos, who represent a third of the county's workforce, make up 16% of biotech.

To understand the dearth of diversity, we reached out to past and present biotech employees, recruiters, and the county's research institutes, universities and colleges.

People highlighted several issues, including limited diversity in academic pipelines that feed into biotech, companies recruiting within their own network bubbles, and explicit and implicit bias in reviewing applications.

And getting hired is just the beginning. Black people within the industry said they had to work even harder to get noticed and rewarded for taking on challenging projects that would allow them to climb the corporate ladder. That may explain why minorities are especially scarce at the highest rungs of biotech.

 

None of these issues are new; biotech's lack of diversity has been documented for more than 20 years. But the topic has taken on new urgency lately.

"I think this is a good opportunity now, with George Floyd, where we can all go back and really reflect and find ways out of systemic racism," said Paul Mola, one of San Diego's few Black biotech CEOs. "And, by God, what many don't understand is that we all get better. The society gets stronger. The country gets stronger."

Early challenges

The average San Diego biotech CEO is 56 years old, according to a 2015 report by Liftstream, a U.K. life science executive search firm. But the barriers that keep Black people out of biotech start far earlier in life.

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