Just over a year ago, State Street Advisors, one of the largest institutional investors in the country, commissioned the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street as a symbol of the increased attention by investors, as well as the public at large, to the lack of gender diversity in high level jobs.
Today, the women’s movement is taking center stage in headlines nationwide. Women are taking charge where it matters: in politics. But beyond the political sector, the cannabis industry is a field ripe for women wanting to make their mark. The cannabis industry is so novel, that it may be that a glass ceiling has yet to develop, and if women have their way, it never will.
Last fall, Windy Borman debuted her documentary on women in the cannabis industry, Mary Janes: The Women of Weed. The film highlights women who work in senior roles across all divisions of the cannabis industry. It shows how women are taking control of the industry and making it their own.
“There is no such thing as an old boys’ network in a new industry,” says Wendy Berger Shapiro, co-founder of a group called Illinois Women in Cannabis. Previously, women in the cannabis field had been concentrated in cottage industries dedicated to paraphernalia or food products, and job descriptions often required good looks.
These days there are a myriad of opportunities in this young and growing field. Women can become entrepreneurs in the industry, or they can get their foot in the door in areas from marketing to accounting to patient care. Expanding cannabis farms and dispensaries need qualified workers quickly in this ever-changing market.
Some women may shy away from the industry given the lingering stigma around cannabis. It can be somewhat uncomfortable to hold yourself out to the public as either a user of medical cannabis, or somebody operating in the industry. Additionally, men have, in the past, dominated the black market for cannabis, which may have led to a perception that women aren’t as knowledgeable about the product as men.
Nonetheless, for those women willing to face the challenges a new industry brings, the cannabis field could generate vast rewards. Women aren’t playing catch-up to men in the cannabis industry because it’s so new. Instead, they’re “leading the industry, shoulder-to-shoulder with men.”
Women have long struggled to be seen as equals in some of the top industries. By entering the cannabis industry at the ground level, many hope to avoid this fate. As more women enter the industry, the more comfortable women will be in the field. And, as cannabis becomes decriminalized, and in many cases legalized across states, the industry will be less stigmatized.
While opportunities for businesswomen are out there, a recent study shows that women entering the cannabis industry are actually falling. When Borman began making the Mary Janes documentary in 2015, women held 36 percent of senior leadership roles in the cannabis industry. By the time the film premiered, that statistic had dropped to 27 percent.
It seems that an increasing number of senior-level male executives from more traditional businesses have been entering the cannabis industry, attracted by the explosive sales growth and declining social stigma. As a result, the executive structure of cannabis businesses is beginning to mirror that of businesses in the traditional economy. Regardless, the percentage of women in executive roles within the cannabis industry still remains around four points higher than the average across all U.S. businesses.
Of notable concern is that just 10 percent of executive positions in cannabis investment firms are held by women. This is significantly lower than the national average for the industry as a whole. With access to capital becoming a more prominent aspect of creating and running a cannabis company, and with men accounting for such an overwhelming portion of leadership in cannabis investing, this could lead to women executives facing more difficulty in raising money.
As Wanda James, a Denver cannabis entrepreneur and activist known for being the first black woman to own a dispensary in Colorado said, “You know what, ladies? We need to invest. We need investment money that comes from women. I think women look at business differently. ... I’m not saying men are bad, but women are different, and now is the time for different.”
Meanwhile, the same study found that over a quarter of the survey respondents who launched a cannabis business and/or have an ownership stake in a cannabis company are women. The highest percentage of these business owners are in ancillary services firms, which can get off the ground with relatively little capital and without the need to obtain licensing because they don’t actually touch the plant. Like mainstream businesses, cannabis companies need many of the same types of products and services which has made the support sector of the cannabis industry a prime target for women looking to start their own businesses.
In making her documentary, Borman discovered that you can’t separate the industry from social justice issues like environmental sustainability, the prison industrial complex and gender parity. “Cannabis is an opportunity to create a profitable industry, and at the same time, the people I’m talking to in the film are working to make sure that it’s an equitable industry.”
“Women are coming to the industry because they get to create the corporate culture that they want. Maybe it’s more flexible working hours so they can be with their kids, or maybe it’s becoming CEO.” This, in turn, benefits the industry overall. When women and people of color hold leadership positions, they tend to hire more diverse employees, which in turn leads to more successful companies because you have multiple perspectives.
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