Women in the Boardroom’s Antiracist Series: Maria Rivas | Women in the Boardroom


Women in the Boardroom’s Antiracist Series: Maria Rivas

Women in the Boardroom’s Antiracist Series: Maria Rivas

Writers at Women in the Boardroom had the opportunity to interview some WIB members to gain insight into their personal and professional experiences and knowledge about antiracism, diversity and inclusion, and equity in the boardroom and corporate settings. We wanted to learn more about what efforts they and their organizations are making to effect change for women and men of color within these organizations and/or how they’ve perceived these changes as women of color.

This week we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Rivas, a pharmaceutical executive and experienced corporate board director. At S&P 500 and international companies, Dr. Rivas has started-up, led and transformed high-performing global teams of up to 2000 medical, research, safety, and compliance professionals in over 90 countries. She has launched several blockbuster medicines in numerous therapeutic areas and managed budgets of $0.5-1 billion dollars/year. Dr. Rivas’s work has enriched the products’ value propositions throughout their lifecycle, impacted patient outcomes, and enhanced the reputations of their respective companies.

Describe your definition of antiracism and why it’s essential in the corporate and board environment.

It’s not enough for a leader to make a declarative statement that they are not racist. They must educate themselves about the atrocities in the past and present in the U.S., and proactively fight racism at work and at home. Home is where the narrative must begin. Educate your children and family members that what they have learned in their school system has not addressed the racism that is still pervasive today in schools, corporate America, etc. And leaders must then commit to being a true ally. Ally is a verb!

As you moved up the ladder, what did you feel the most jarring changes were in regard to diversity initiatives?

At EMD Serono, we have leveraged executive sponsorship as one pivotal diversity lever to advance women. According to research by Catalyst, women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. A sponsor is different than a mentor in that they can help advance a woman’s career-really pull her forward in the organization. I am sponsoring a black woman, who has been identified as a high potential in the organization, and we have monthly one on ones. This has helped me to see future talent in the organization, while she has had the opportunity to expand her network and have her successes illuminated. The success of this program has led us to plans to expand this program to a broad group of people of color for 3Q 2020, both women and men.

How are antiracist issues and diversity initiatives related?

There is so much research supporting the “business case” of why a more diverse and inclusive culture can help to drive collaboration, innovation, and drive profits. Leveraging these data points can help convert the most skeptical leaders. In my line of work, biopharmaceutical research, diversity and inclusion in our employee base helps us better understand the unmet medical needs of the patients and healthcare communities we serve around the world. In this manner, we can point our scientific innovation to therapies that help those communities.

What does it mean to you to see others illustrate a commitment to diversity and antiracism

I think it’s incumbent on us as leaders to ask ourselves and our peers the “HOW” they are fighting racism. Are they volunteering on boards for under-represented groups? Are they mentoring and sponsoring people of color at work? Where are they donating their dollars, and more importantly, who are they electing into public office? These are just a few of the opportunities for leaders to commit to fighting racism.

What advice would you give to boards/corporate leaders to actively engage in antiracism consistently and moving forward?

Let’s start with transparency about where we are today with leadership in corporate America:

There are all of four black male CEOs and zero black women CEOs in Fortune 500s. The Latino Corporate Directors Association recently published its analysis of women appointed to boards following the enactment of California’s Gender Diversity Board, SB 826. The largest number of appointments, 77.9%, went to white women, followed by 11.5% Asian women, 5.3% to African American women, and the lowest number, 3.3%, went to US Latinas. Furthermore, LCDA also found that 35% of California companies have all-white boards of directors. And this is in a state where 39.4% of the population is Latinx! These statistics are discouraging.

Diversity in both the executive management and board ranks has to change to better reflect the changing demographics in our country. We must pledge for change. Our company president recently joined over 1,000 CEOs who have signed the CEO Action Pledge. One of the key tenets of this pledge is to have uncomfortable conversations about dismantling racism, not only amongst our leaders, but at the board level.

What strategies have you witnessed as being used to respond to diversity challenges? Have they been effective? How might you change them?

Our leadership has formed a diversity advocates board, where there is leadership from each department in our healthcare business. We meet monthly to review critical Key Performance Improvement Metrics, and track our successes. One metric we have seen increase is the representation of women in our “Director” and above management level. At the beginning of 2017, women represented only 34% of our leadership positions. Today, that number is just over 40%. We accomplished this by unearthing and addressing our systemic unconscious biases, ensuring a balanced representation of women in succession plans, internal development courses, sponsorship programs, etc. We are close to rolling out a retention campaign to ensure our high potential women are alerted when there is an opportunity for a promotion. We are mindful that while women rise in corporate America, we have to ensure our women of color are rising as well.

What do you want your peers to know about what it means to be antiracist?

I struggled in my medical career with first being seen as a woman, then being seen as a Latina. In the earlier stages of my career, these characteristics were a hindrance. Today, I see them as my superpowers. As a woman, my leadership is more collaborative and inclusive, and my passion as a Latina helps me empathize with the patients I serve. I want my peers to know that they should strive to see the whole person in front of them, to take the time to get to know them, and find their superpowers. Embrace their differences and look for ways to be an ally to those who are under-represented in leadership, including women, blacks and Latinx.

What do you feel is a mistake in organizations thinking about diversity?

Research published in the Harvard Business Review has shown that when you force leaders to take diversity courses, it can have the opposite impact, and thus create a more divisive culture. We have trained over 1,200 of our leaders on unconscious bias, yet we have made this training optional. We have also learned that having our colleagues share their stories of racial injustices and microaggressions during our “listening sessions” has taught our organization that racism is still a daily cross to bear for our peers, particularly our black colleagues.

How can we achieve real change in diversity, inclusions, and antiracism when “allies” for diversity and inclusion hold their own prejudice views as we saw illustrated recently by Amy Cooper

Last fall, one of my mentees founded a Leaders of Color (LOC) action network. Since that time, over four hundred people of color and allies have joined this team, and we now have site leads at our major sites in the US. We are also planning several European chapters of LOC, and will be leveraging allies to help us drive much needed change at work and in society overall. It’s not enough to call yourself an ally, it takes action. Our allies have been instrumental in some of the listening sessions we have held since the murder of George Floyd. Their transparency and eagerness to learn have been incredibly inspiring to me, and somehow, this time feels like allies are truly committing to act on the realities of racism in a new and sustainable way.

About Women in the Boardroom™

Since 2002, we have been the experts that help you get your seat at the table. We provide a customized step-by-step approach to getting on your 1st, 2nd or 3rd corporate board that includes exclusive programs such as our Matchmaking Program™, Annual Board Assembly and proven networking process. And with nearly 50% of our VIP Members serving on corporate boards, our proven process works!

Learn More