Diversity & Inclusion Events Have Halted. Our Conversations Shouldn’t.

Opinion

Xconomy Boston — 

If the state of current events has shown us one thing, it’s that inclusion matters. Inclusivity is more important than ever. Whether you are black, white, gay, or straight, the time for conversations about inclusion is now.

If you’re a small or medium-sized biotech company, you may think you don’t have a place in the corporate diversity and inclusion dialogue. But that’s just not the case. How many of your employees may feel their perspectives aren’t valued? How many of your employees may be struggling to come out to their corporate circle? How many of your employees feel uncomfortable to speak up in the culture you’ve fostered?

In 2015, I founded OUTbio, a Boston-based LGBTQ drug development network, to help these organizations start conversations with their employees. And while COVID-19 has prevented us from hosting large, in-person events for the foreseeable future, those conversations don’t have to end. Leadership teams: It’s on you to pick up where we left off.

I had been one of those employees. And while I am proud of my LGBTQ story, I hadn’t always been so vocal about it. Let me take you back to 2002: “Will & Grace” was still on television (the first time around, at least), gay marriage wasn’t legal yet, and Ellen DeGeneres was still a year away from becoming the queen of daytime television. At that time, I was a recently divorced (yes—from a woman), the father of two children, and finally coming to terms with my sexuality.

In the late summer of that year, I had started to come out to family and friends, but not at work. I had one professional colleague who identified as gay: someone who advised me not to come out to colleagues or our company’s leadership team. He lived with the fear that someday being gay might be the reason he was passed over for a promotion.

While I initially took his advice, it didn’t last long. Being closeted means living in fear of using the wrong pronoun or saying something “revealing.” Imagine constantly feeling like you’re being untruthful to everyone around you—it’s exhausting. I became sick of editing myself in the office, sick of dropping gender pronouns from my private life. And sick of hiding my Cher CDs.

This emotional exhaustion was taking a toll on my ability to perform the best at my job and form genuine relationships with my colleagues. Through all of this, I had underestimated the power of bringing my true, authentic self to work. If anything, this is the barrier that would have hindered me from getting promoted—not my sexuality.

I couldn’t do it anymore.

I pulled my boss into my office and just told her. I also strategically spoke to a couple of the office gossips, and within a week or two, everyone knew. Time-wise, it was a relatively quick experience. Emotion-wise, it wasn’t. It was traumatizing, uncomfortable, and has stuck with me for a very long time.

I was still holding onto that uncomfortable collision between my personal and professional lives in 2015, when I found myself pondering the prospect of looking for another job. Being (technically) a scientist, I decided to run an experiment: I would invite my network of six LGBTQ+ drug development professionals to a meet-up group and ask them to invite whomever they could.

When I hosted the first OUTbio event (then known only as the LGBT Drug Development Meet-up Group), only roughly 10 people attended, but the impact was immediate. Five years later, OUTbio is an organization with almost 1,200 members. The stratospheric growth of OUTbio shows just how much need there is for community and support within this large professional population.

No one wants to feel alone or to feel like they can’t exist authentically in their work life. Everyone benefits from being explicitly supported and respected. We all need to feel like we are contributing, that we are being heard and that we are making a difference.

Biotech leaders and executives, you may be thinking that the world we live in today is a different, more progressive place than it was in 2002. You may be thinking that your employees will be comfortable coming out in the workplace. You may be thinking that it’s not your responsibility to ensure that the working environment you’ve fostered is an inclusive place.

Don’t underestimate how difficult it is for one of your employees to speak out on a diversity and inclusion issue. Biotech leaders and executives, it’s on you to make sure people feel comfortable enough to express who they really are. It’s on you to start dialogues that your employees may be terrified to initiate. I know I was. How many others have felt—and currently feel—that way?

While the global pandemic has shifted public gatherings and events, I will always view Pride Month as a reminder of the power of my personal journey, the power of living authentically and the power of united community. For everyone else—whether or not you’re a part of the LGBTQ community—I hope that it’s a reminder to start the difficult conversations you may have felt uncomfortable having.

Ramsey Johnson is the co-founder of OUTbio and vice president of operations at BridgeBio Pharma subsidiary company Phoenix Tissue Repair. Follow @ramsey_johnson

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