I took a sustainability and corporate social responsibility course during my Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Arizona State University. The focus of the course taught by Dr. Reynold Byers was on profitability, increasing a firm’s sustainability, social responsibility, and the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit (PPP). For a class project, I explored diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues for medical science liaisons and proposed solutions for flexible work and universal design as a strategy to improve the engagement of neurodiverse medical science liaisons. Neurodiversity is a non-pathological variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. This topic is a subset of a larger discussion of D&I. In this article, I provide an overview of D&I in STEM careers, challenges in MSL retention, explain some issues neurodiverse employees face, and propose some potential approaches to address challenges in the workplace for success and fulfillment. I have updated and summarized the class project for the MSL journal and excluded return on investment (ROI) calculations on employee retention. Tools for ROI can be found in the Society for Human Resource Management and other online sources.
Diversity and inclusion in STEM careers
Retention and D&I in the MSL career are part of a broader issue in the STEM workforce. MSLs remain with a particular employer for an average of two years. On the other hand, four years is the average tenure of employees across all industries in the private sector . The reasons why MSLs choose to leave jobs include: micromanagement, lack of transparency, poor communication of the company priorities and agenda, lack of understanding within company leadership regarding the role of the MSL role, and lack of career development opportunities. Furthermore, many MSLs feel undervalued; their skills are underutilized and inadequate training and tools to conduct their activities are frequent issues. Hiring new MSLs due to turnover costs money for recruitment and training. The remaining employees tend to be less engaged and become less productive because of observing attrition.
In the STEM workforce, there are disparities among Black/African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and American Indians or Alaska Natives in science and engineering fields . Problems of sexual harassment remain prevalent, with up to 50% of women in male-dominated STEM environments reporting some form of discrimination . Among black women, the barriers are even steeper compared to white women, and they are significantly undervalued. According to one study, 13% of whites, 42% of Hispanics, 44% of Asians, and 62% of blacks (men and women) in STEM faced racially motivated discrimination . Among women, the range of discrimination suffered included: “earning less pay than male colleagues (29%), treatment as incompetent (29%), repeated slights (20%), and less support from senior leaders compared to males in similar roles (18%)”. These subtle inequities, like dismissiveness, tone, and body language, severely impact employee morale, engagement, productivity, and psychological safety. A less recognized issue in STEM is that about 10% of employees report one or more disabilities, including difficulties in hearing, vision, cognitive ability, ambulatory, self-care, or independent living [2, 4]. Disability status does not necessarily limit educational attainment or workforce participation; these groups can lead productive lives with or without reasonable accommodations.
In recent years there has been more awareness about neurodiversity in the workplace. It is estimated that 15 to 18% of the population is neurodivergent . Many conditions fall under neurodiversity, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and autism. Neurodiverse employees may suffer from significant daily living challenges. These challenges may include organization, time management, priority setting, reading, writing, and memory problems (Figure 1). These issues can lead to stress, mismanagement of workload, inconsistent and inadequate performance, and a high level of attrition [6-8]. However, studies have shown that tailored support improves self-confidence, self-awareness, and a general feeling of more control of their work, all leading to improved work outcomes .
Furthermore, neurodiverse individuals may have essential skills that should be harnessed in the workplace. Along with their shortcomings, many have significant gifts, including creativity, unique problem-solving abilities, and communication skills (Figure 1). These skills have been identified as highly desirable for the workforce of the future . Hence supporting this segment of employees within a broader agenda of D&I is desirable. Several large organizations, including Microsoft, SAS, and the military, have neurodiversity recruitment programs.
Figure 1 Strengths and challenges of neurodiversity
Credit: Professor Sara Rankin
To address some of the challenges faced by neurodiverse employees, I proposed some potential solutions. Sustainable workplace processes and industry buy-in for MSLs based on universal design principles can improve employee engagement and retention and meet the needs of neurodiverse employees. Some proposed solutions include:
(1) Advocating for corporate buy-in for emerging issues in D&I based on universal design principles
(2) Improve MSL engagement and retention by developing approaches to implement flexible work and support productivity, time management, and self-efficacy of neurodiverse MSLs
(3) Provide support for the MSL to pursue socially responsible projects which add value to the community
(4) Identify or develop metrics to measure outcomes of programs and impact based on the triple bottom line
I elaborate further on each of these proposed solutions
Universal design principles
Universal design is an approach for making products, environments, operational systems, and services welcoming and usable to the most diverse range of people possible. It is based on simplicity, flexibility, and efficiency[10, 11]. It has been demonstrated that universal design can optimize employee productivity, safety, collaboration, and communication. Universal design is based on seven principles
- Equitable use
- Flexibility of Use
- Simple and Intuitive Use
- Perceptible information
- Tolerance for Error
- Low Physical Effort
- Appropriate Size and Space for Approach and Use.
By its very nature, the MSL role as a remote worker with a high degree of autonomy is highly adaptable to universal design and tailoring to meet the need of a diverse workforce
It has been reported that work scheduling flexibility and location is becoming as important as pay to recruit and retain talent. Also, flexible work has been shown to increase staff retention, and productivity and ultimately provide a competitive advantage to companies. In a remote role, MSLs have more flexibility with their work compared to other careers. However, additional formal arrangements can be considered depending on the mutual needs of the companies and employees. Examples of flexible work arrangements include contract employment, part-time work, 75% employment, and unpaid leave. These arrangements can benefit many types of employees who want mental health or education breaks and allow companies to retain their employees. Various organizations, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, Job Accommodations networks, and The Society for Human Resource Management , have different toolkits for implementing flexible work arrangements.
(3) Provide support for the MSL to pursue socially responsible projects which add value to the community
At the core of corporate social responsibility is service. Many companies have formal service programs. In addition, many employees, including MSLs, have individual initiatives and social citizenship that bring value to their community and provide a sense of purpose beyond work. Flexible schedules can give adequate time to pursue these things. Furthermore, many MSLs have medical and research qualifications, hence can provide service beyond the MSL role to their community, for example, adjunct faculty at a university, substitute teacher, high schooler mentor, international missions, emergency medical technicians, taking occasional shifts as a community pharmacist or medical doctor. Having highly qualified MSLs be visible in community leadership positions and involvement in professional organizations can bring mutual value to the MSLs and the companies they work for.
(4) Identify or develop metrics to measure outcomes of the program and impact on the triple bottom line.
For any recommendations to be sustainable, the company and the MSLs need to see that any initiative is working. In a corporate setting, the additional indicators for success will include a quantitative assessment of the impact of improved MSL engagement and retention on the company’s bottom line. There are several ways to measure employee engagement and return on investment. One approach suggests a nine-step engagement model that starts with alignment to business needs and ends with measuring the impact of the model on the business  Figure 2. In addition, incorporating MSL performance metrics based on typical activities of the MSL would make the engagement model more role-specific. Currently, no standard MSL metrics are used in the industry, and how MSLs are assessed varies depending on the company. However, an interesting metric I found is the “slugging percentage model to cover all MSL bases”. Though unusually highly detailed, some aspects of this may be particularly valuable for neurodiverse and socially responsible MSLs, including a rating on activities regarding company values and an assessment of behavior.
Figure 2 Modified engagement model
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Tenure in 2020 https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/tenure.pdf. 2020 [cited 2022 6/2/2022]; Available from: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/tenure.pdf.
- National Science Foundation (2021) Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21321. 2021.
- Pew Research Center (2018) Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/01/09/women-and-men-in-stem-often-at-odds-over-workplace-equity/.
- National Science Foundation (2019) Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest 2019.
- Deloitte (2022) Neurodiversity in the Workplace https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace.html.
- Janette Beetham, L.O., Workplace Dyslexia & Specific Learning Difficulties—Productivity, Engagement, and Well-Being. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2017. 5(6): p. 56-78.
- Robbins, R., The untapped potential of the ADHD employee in the workplace. Cogent Business & Management, 2017. 4(1): p. 1271384.
- Kirby, A.G., Hayley, Dyslexia, and Employment. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 2018. 44(1): p. 27-31.
- Sara Rankin (2020) Raising Awareness of Neurodiversity in the Scientific Workplace https://sangerinstitute.blog/2020/04/03/raising-awareness-of-neurodiversity-in-the-scientific-workplace/. 2020.
- Story, M.F., J.L. Mueller, and R.L. Mace. The Universal Design File: Designing for People of All Ages and Abilities. Revised Edition. 1998.
- Gronseth, S.L., and H.M. Hutchins, Flexibility in Formal Workplace Learning: Technology Applications for Engagement through the Lens of Universal Design for Learning. TechTrends, 2020. 64(2): p. 211-218.
- Society for Human Resource Management, Flexible Work Arrangements https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/managingflexibleworkarrangements.aspx.
- Patti Phillips, P.D., CPTD Jack J. Phillips, Ph.D. Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., Measuring the Success of Employee Engagement 2016.
- Mikhelashvili, Tim A (2019) ” Slugging Percentage ” Model to Cover All Bases of Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Performance Metrics https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/slugging-percentage-model-cover-all-bases-medical-msl-mikhelashvili/.
Slugging percentage metric
Eyitayo S. Fakunle, PhD, MPH, MBA
I am a senior Medical Science Liaison at Covis Pharma. I have been in this role since July 19th, 2021. Covis Pharma is a global specialty pharmaceutical company in multiple therapeutic areas. We are growing in the respiratory space with recent acquisitions of drugs for treating COPD. Covis values Diversity and Inclusion and recently launched our D&I initiative. I am among the nine global employees serving on the D&I council. Council members serve as leaders responsible for representing the “voice” of both their function and the global employee base.
Overall, I have seven years of experience in medical affairs/medical science liaison in my career across companies. I have previous experience in cell therapy and regenerative medicine, stem cells, orthopedics, and cartilage repair. At Covis, I am gaining experience in respiratory supporting our Asthma and COPD portfolio.
Beyond work, I am pursuing a social venture named “I am Pluripotent” to provide after-school STEM learning opportunities for girls and diverse youth to prepare them for future STEM careers. I launched “I am Pluripotent” in the summer of 2021 as part of the Venture Devils Program of Arizona State University. The project is organized as a small business startup for which I am the founder and owner. I plan to continue every summer to provide fun learning opportunities to youth, and I hope to grow it in the future to provide opportunities to a larger audience.