To mark International Women’s Day, Cannabis Health editor, Sarah Sinclair spoke to the women who chose to challenge a lack of diversity in the cannabis industry, by launching an all-female networking group to encourage collaboration, tackle stigma and improve access for patients.
It was only my second day in the job when the invite landed in my shiny new inbox.
“Hi Sarah, congrats on your role as editor and writer for Cannabis Health News. I would like to extend an invitation to our growing networking group of medical cannabis health professionals, industry leaders and researchers”, wrote Dr Mala Mawkin, a former NHS doctor and now head of product development at chronic pain clinic, Cellen.
At the time, the Women in Cannabis Leadership group met over Zoom every three weeks, with names such as Hannah Deacon and Vera Twomey among those in the email chain. Alongside them were leading researchers and scientists, groundbreaking prescribers, patients and the brains behind schemes such as Project Twenty21, whose work I didn’t know well enough yet, but would come to respect and admire greatly.
As the third Wednesday of the month rolled around I waited anxiously for the host to let me into the meeting. To say I was daunted by the prospect of finding myself in a video call from my spare room, with these women clearly at the forefront of the UK cannabis movement, would be an understatement.
It immediately felt as though I was entering a friendship group which had been blossoming for years, little did I know that these women had only got together for the first time themselves a few weeks earlier.
Mala had (virtually) met Sophie Thompson, a communications professional at Aurora Healthcare, through an industry a few weeks earlier, in July 2020, at which both were struck by the lack of women represented.
“We were given 15 minutes to network and we spent the whole time nattering about where all the women were,” says Mala now – over zoom, of course,
“I had never experienced anything like this before, I felt like it was very male-dominated and no one was actively encouraging women into the space.
“We knew there were women doing amazing work in this field, so why weren’t they here?”
Having recently spent time working at Aurora’s office in Toronto, Sophie had also spotted that something was missing in the UK sector.
“I learned a lot about how they’ve approached cannabis communications out there and I saw a real gap in the UK in terms of communication around medical cannabis,” she explains.
“There’s a lot of stigma around cannabis and a lot of that can be addressed through communications… I was keen to see how I could help address that through my work and I wanted to form connections in the UK.”
Soon after the pair took the bold move of sending out a mass email to every woman they knew working in the space, inviting them for a virtual coffee.
“People started coming back to us, saying what an amazing idea it was,” recalls Mala.
“There were huge names such as Hannah Deacon, who felt they were lacking this group of people around them.
“The boys all had their networking groups and this was a way of democratising that and finding a way that we too could be leaders in the field.”
Sophie adds: “We were very conscious that we didn’t have a lot of resources and we’ve proved that it doesn’t need to be a big investment, it’s just a couple of hours a month of talking and seeing how we can work together.”
The middle of a global pandemic, when travel is restricted and most of us are confined to our homes, might seem like a strange time to launch a women’s networking group, but actually Sophie and Mala believe Covid-19 has actually been a “blessing in disguise”.
“Realistically we would never have found the time every three weeks to meet in person and we wouldn’t have thought to do it on Zoom,” says Sophie.
“We’ve got working mums in the group who are trying to juggle children, so actually I think it’s helped us that we’ve all been able to carve out this time to quickly join a call, even if it’s just for half an hour.”
Within a few sessions natural partnerships were developing, bonds were being formed and Sophie had even arranged guest speakers from Canadian cannabis group Tetra to share their insight with the group.
“Suddenly we were on the inside, we knew what was happening with Project Twenty21, everyone got involved with Medical Cannabis Awareness Week and PLEA (Patient-Led Engagement for Access), we even formed a fundraising team for the Sapphire Foundation,” Sophie continues.
“These are all pretty great results from just six months of Zoom catch ups… it’s amazing the power that you can get from just talking to each other.”
Mala agrees: “It’s small things such as buying Mary Biles’ book or rallying around someone’s Tweet, but I feel like we’re amplifying each other’s voices just by knowing each other.”
I can certainly attest to that, as someone entering this wild west of a sector for the first time, without the ability to meet people face-to-face, having these monthly calls – and now being part of what might be the only WhatsApp group I haven’t immediately turned on mute – has allowed me to access a world I probably wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Sure, as a journalist it’s helped me to make contacts, find stories, amplify voices and earn people’s trust.
But as a woman it’s given me moral support, confidence in the knowledge these people have got my back, and the validation that I’m worthy of a place here too.
Of course, it’s not all women sending love heart emojis back and forth (although there is a lot of that too) there is a much bigger strategy at play here, in a bid to tackle some of the major challenges in the cannabis industry today.
The group’s mission is to support patient access to medicinal cannabis therapy by building a partnership of women from key organisations in the medical cannabis space. Its vision is to see a world within the next five to 10 years, where medicinal cannabis is considered part of mainstream medicinal treatment in the UK.
“We’ve already started by just putting our names to it,” says Mala.
“By collaborating and lifting each other up, we’re saying we take this industry seriously.”
She adds: “There have been a lot of false promises in this industry and it’s people’s lives that are at stake here. As a group we can hold people to account, call out bad practice and get people to take cannabis seriously again.”
Made up of women who are considered to be leading the way in science, research, healthcare and patient advocacy, it aims to leverage the combined expertise of its members to improve education and raise awareness, with a goal to challenge barriers and limit stigma for patients requiring cannabis treatment.
“One of the things I’m keen to do is make sure we’re broadening the people who are involved and addressing any gaps within the group, so we can maximise our impact across the industry with people from every cross-section,” continues Sophie.
“Small things stack up to big things over time, it’s not something that you’re going to change overnight, a perception is something that you’ve got to change through lots of small activities that build up how people talk about cannabis in medicine.”
“I think the group will grow as we get more accepting as a country for cannabis as a treatment,” adds Mala.
“I’m excited to get to the point where we’re inundated with so many people because the industry is hiring so many more women. We welcome anyone who is referred into the group, why should we make it exclusive?”
It goes without saying that the other driving force behind the group is to improve diversity in the sector and pave the way for other women and minority groups to see cannabis as an accessible industry.
“It’s not just about women, it’s about having people from all different backgrounds, because then you bring different skill-sets and working approaches to the role,” says Sophie.
Mala agrees: “In the cannabis industry, if you imagine a patient advocate you imagine a girl, if you imagine an investor, you imagine a boy. We’ve already started stereotyping these roles and no one’s challenging this.
“Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you have to be a patient advocate, you can be a researcher as well and just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you have to be a white, male and middle class.”
Both see the emergence of the cannabis sector as an opportunity to tackle gender stereotypes and challenge perceptions of traditional male and female roles in the workplace and wider society. As well as a chance to show younger generations that cannabis is legitimate business.
“There are so many stereotypes we need to batter-down and having serious examples of different people in different roles is going to be the best thing to encourage the next generation to look at this industry as a serious career prospect,” adds Mala.
“If you’re going to start something from scratch, why would you create the same thing again? We have an opportunity to reinvent the wheel here.”
The Women in Cannabis Leadership group currently meets every three months via Zoom and is always keen to welcome new members. If you would like to get in touch, please contact Mala and Sophie at: firstname.lastname@example.org and Sophie.Thompson@auroracomms.com
Read what the members of the Women in Cannabis Leadership group are choosing to challenge on International Women’s Day this year here
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