J&J makes a $100 million diversity pledge. Does it go far enough?

The pledge arrived as the pandemic continued its surge, with minority communities particularly hard hit, and as cultural dialogue heated up within the industry.

Johnson & Johnson this week became the latest big drugmaker to sign a big check aimed at upping diversity, offering a five-year, $100 million pledge to eliminate health inequities for Black people and other communities of color in the U.S.

As one plank of its commitment, the company set a goal of achieving 50% growth of its Black talent at the levels of manager and above. 

“Seven percent of our VPs are African-American,” Michael Sneed, J&J’s EVP and global corporate affairs and chief communications officer, told MM+M. “We're pleased with that, but we know that it's not where we need to be. It's not where our customer base is or the society in general. And so we want to make sure that we are accelerating our commitment in this area.”

J&J’s three-pronged commitment includes providing equitable care for underserved communities, including stepping up COVID-19 testing in cities like Detroit and New Orleans. It will also feature initiatives to increase diversity in clinical trials, to forge stronger partnerships with health systems and to support Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses. 

Those efforts are aimed at combating social health determinants - a broadly defined set of fundamentals underpinning good health, like socioeconomic status, working conditions, transportation, and safe housing. Such access often cuts along racial lines. 

Calling that disparity “a critical public health issue,” J&J CEO and chairman Alex Gorsky said, “There is an urgent need to take on the inequities rooted in systemic racism that threaten health in communities of color across the United States.”

The announcement comes as COVID-19 case counts spike in many parts of the country and the U.S. death toll crosses a quarter-million - and as more is learned about the individuals and groups that experience the most dire complications. Since the start of the pandemic, underrepresented minorities have been contracting SARS-CoV-2 infection more frequently and are dying more often.

COVID-19 has “exposed the fragility of the healthcare system,” Sneed explained. “We recognize that there can't be health for everybody unless there's health equity for everybody. That's really the basis and the impetus for the commitment.”

J&J’s initiative follows a $300 million pledge last August by fellow drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb that included doubling executive representation of Black and Latino employees in the U.S. and achieving gender parity at the executive level, both by 2022. BMS also promised to boost clinical trial diversity and work to strengthen health equity across its businesses.

What J&J’s effort may lack in dollar value, it more than makes up for in scope, said Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, president and co-founder of the group Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP), which has tracked drugmakers’ corporate plans around diversity and inclusion and spurred such efforts to be more specific and intentional

Each of the drugmaker’s three main priorities align with recommendations proposed this year in WOCIP’s Playbook, a document designed to help the pharma industry commit to taking meaningful action in pursuit of racial and gender equality, Jones-Burton said. They also jibe with a peer-reviewed piece she co-authored with Kemi Olugemo, MD, and Judith Greener, PhD, offering solutions for improving health equity in Black communities in the face of the pandemic. 

“While one could look at the dollar amount of the announcement and say that it doesn't quite go as far as it could, we have to look beyond at the totality of what has been included,” Jones-Burton said.

J&J’s initiative is “the most comprehensive [D&I] commitment to date that has been announced within the pharmaceutical industry,” Jones-Burton continued. She noted it provides specificity regarding the overall strategy as well as actions and partnerships that have already been started. She pointed to J&J’s partnership with the Executive Leadership Council to provide college scholarships and other resources to Black students who have a passion for STEM, business or healthcare-related fields.

“Ensuring that their workforce is representative of the communities that they are targeting is of utmost importance,” Jones-Burton added. J&J already has Black women in the executive ranks, she said, pointing to chief worldwide diversity and inclusion officer Wanda Hope and company group chairman, global commercial strategy organization (pharmaceuticals) Vanessa Broadhurst.

“They are then saying that we want to do more,” Jones-Burton said. “For a public-facing statement, it's the most specific that I have seen to date.” 

If Jones-Burton has one criticism, it would be the company’s lack of a specific metric around clinical trial diversity. “We should look for those metrics to come in the near future, because if you can't measure it, it's not going to be done,” she explained.

J&J’s announcement came during a week when cultural dialogue heated up within the industry. Specifically, industry groups traded statements about Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ Black heritage.

In a Nov. 12 message to members celebrating Harris’ milestone, one of the regional chairs of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) used the term “woman of color” to describe her. On Nov. 16, the organization issued a clarification and apology.

“It would have been more appropriate to state Black woman, which Harris closely identifies,” wrote Jacqueline Franke, the chair of HBA's mid-Atlantic region. “I take responsibility for this incorrect message and offer my sincere apologies for this mistake.”

That prompted a statement from WOCIP the following day, which Jones-Burton co-authored with Olugemo on behalf of the board. It read in part: “This omission is concerning to Black women who identify with Kamala Harris, and are often not properly acknowledged or credited for their contributions.” 

The statement went on to say that, while Harris publically identifies as both a Black woman and an Indian woman, omitting her Black heritage “is part and parcel of decades-old practices to minimize contributions of Black women.”

That can lead to microaggressions, such as lack of proper attribution and credit for achievements in the workplace. Moreover, a study conducted by Lean In and SurveyMonkey found that while over 80% of white employees see themselves as allies at work, Black and Latina women disagree. 

Jones-Burton elaborated on the statement in this week’s MM+M Podcast, saying that the omission “feels for us as if you are not acknowledging who we are,” she said. At the same time, she noted that such conversations around race and ethnicity are “an important step in the right direction to being able to have authentic dialogue.”

Franke explained in an email to MM+M that her chapter had launched a "get uncomfortable" initiative with the support of a volunteer/mentor who has deep involvement in diversity. “I thought that I was relatively informed of the issue and I had the correct language and message,” she explained. “This taught me that we cannot wipe out 400 years of injustice with a few months of awareness and training, regardless of how well intentioned we are.”

Jones-Burton agreed, saying, “These are deep-rooted actions that have happened over hundreds of years, and we don't expect that they will be erased in a matter of months. It will take continued effort. And being a student who’s willing to listen and to admit that an error occurred - I applaud that effort.”

The exchange underscores the need for leaders to offer ongoing education around these issues - and that’s another reason D&I champions like Jones-Burton are applauding J&J’s effort. It suggests that the $10 million, three-year commitment to fighting racism and injustice that Gorsky announced in a letter to employees in June, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, was merely a placeholder. And considering that the last line of this week’s announcement notes the company’s “commitment to address racial and social injustice is enduring,” this too could precede something bigger.

“They are seeing themselves as a convener, which is important because eradicating systemic racism is going to happen not just by one company but by having multiple stakeholders, multiple groups across multiple industries,” Jones-Burton said.

Sneed agreed. “We look at the five years as really a milestone, but recognize that this is a long-term commitment. Because the problem has been long-term, it’s not something that we’re going to fix overnight.”

This article first appeared on mmm-online.com.

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