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Because it's relatively new, the cannabis industry has the chance to do business more progressively than other industries, particularly in its inclusion of women.

To assess how far cannabis companies have come in this regard and how far they still have to go, Vangst, a recruiting platform for the cannabis industry, recently surveyed representatives, including human resources employees and CEOs, of 166 cannabis businesses in 17 U.S. states about their companies' inclusion of women.

In Vangst's survey, 38.6% of the people surveyed identified as female, and 43.3% of respondents said women constituted the majority of their companies. Still, 74% of surveyed companies had 10 or fewer female employees. (Forty-four percent of the companies had 10 or fewer employees total, which explains this somewhat, but they also surveyed larger companies, the largest consisting of 500 people.) Seven of the companies, which each had seven or fewer employees, were all-female.

This data put cannabis well above the tech industry (20% women), agriculture (25%), and beverage/tobacco (26%). But it's still behind the most female-dominated industries, such as education (68% women) and real estate (49.9%).

And, as with most industries, the statistics are bleaker when looking at the proportion of women in leadership roles — 12.6% of the companies surveyed had no women in director or executive level positions, and 41.2% had just one. Only 14.6% had three or more.

Legalization Ironically a Roadblock to  Leadership

The obstacles to women's leadership in cannabis may be an unintended consequence of legalization, said Boss Ladies of Cannabis (BLOC) founder Rachel Colic. Now that the cost of doing business in cannabis is higher, people have to raise more money to start their own business.

“We know from a wide range of studies that women and people of color face significant barriers when raising capital, which is putting an even greater strain on the access available for all those interested in participating in the industry,” Colic said.

Weedmaps sends company representatives to the Wonder Women Tech conference in November 2018 in Long Beach, California. In a survey of cannabis businesses to gauge their inclusion of women, Vangst, a cannabis-focused recruiting firm, found 43.3% of respondents said women constitute a majority of their enterprises. (Weedmaps file photo by Gina Coleman)

The stake women hold in the cannabis industry's leadership and ownership has declined in recent years, likely due to legalization, agrees Cynthia Salarizadeh, CEO of the cannabis industry PR and consulting firm Salar Media Group.

“Institutional money and players have moved into our industry and begun to treat it like every other profitable sector,” she said. “So, men overall seem to be receiving all of the advantage once again.”

Salarizadeh believes this could be why Vangst found that Pennsylvania had the highest proportion of female employees.

“When the industry overall was still in its medical marijuana phase verse recreational, women still had a major advantage in leadership and ownership,” she explained. “Considering Pennsylvania is still medical-only and a very mature market for it, there could be a correlation as to why women still have a lead. If Pennsylvania could make an effort to keep women at the table as they move into an adult-use and business heavy arena, that could set a strong precedent for the rest of the states and industry.”

Men Calling Most of the Shots

Another reason for the shortage of female leaders in cannabis could be the same reason other industries experience the same: Men are making the decisions. Because men are more often the ones starting and owning cannabis companies, Salarizadeh thinks this could be translating to fewer women in leadership roles.

“Since we seem to have continued pushback on inequality in the workforce, trying to change from within with little to no luck in many cases, I believe it's time we face that we just need to do things ourselves and fuel more female ownership,” Salarizadeh said. “Statistically and culturally, investors tend to invest in people they relate to or feel comfortable with, and employers do the same when hiring, so it stands to reason that if more women had the core key roles, they will naturally be more comfortable advancing women to leadership positions.”

Vangst, a recruiting business focused on the cannabis industry, surveyed executives and human-resources professionals in 166 cannabis companies in 17 U.S. states. While the cannabis industry has more women in leadership roles than in other industries such as agriculture and technology. (Illustration by Sabrina Seguin/Weedmaps).

There's still room for change within organizations as well, though. In order to attract more women and give them greater opportunities, Salarizadeh believes cannabis companies should create explicit policies to pay women as much as they pay men and hire HR employees with experiencing hiring a diverse team. Colic recommends that cannabis companies consult the Canadian Gender & Good Governance Alliance's Board Directors' Playbook for guidelines on developing a diverse workforce.  

“Cannabis companies should be looking to diversify the pools from which they are drawing their most senior candidates,” Colic said. “If you don't have qualified women applying for those positions, go out looking for them. There is no shortage of talented professionals with an interest in cannabis who happen to identify as women. If they aren't sitting within your C-suite at this point, frankly, you're just not looking hard enough.”

There's also work that can be done at the government level. Laws allocating more funding to women business owners will help empower women to start their own cannabis companies, and laws enforcing equal pay can ensure that there are well-paying jobs available to women in cannabis and other industries, Salarizadeh said. Some lobbyists are also currently pushing for policies that incentivize cannabis companies to value diversity, Colic added.

Plenty of Opportunities for Women in Cannabis

Despite the setbacks that have come with legalization, Salarizadeh believes that with the industry still relatively underground, women have more opportunities to start their own cannabis business than in other industries. “The biggest opportunities are in business ownership and operations,” she said.

However, Colic said that now is a good time for women to pursue any kind of career in cannabis.

“We are building an industry that needs everyone from accountants and lawyers, to marketers, scientists, activists, and lobbyists,” she said. “Whatever your passion or skill set, there is an opportunity for you within cannabis. I encourage the women I coach to bring their whole authentic selves to this space. Take all of the expertise and experience you've built throughout your career and put it to work in cannabis. If you don't see the job you want, make it.”

Feature image: While 43.3 of respondents told Vangst, a cannabis industry recruitment firm, that women make up a majority of their workers, the survey also found few women in positions of leadership. About 41% said only one woman was in an executive position, and 12.6% said there are no women in leadership roles. (Weedmaps file photo by Gina Coleman)