This International Women’s Day we explore the current state of diversity in cannabis, why female consumers are a golden business opportunity, and how Europe’s budding industry can address issues of gender and racial disparity from the start.
Gender equity and equality is ultimately about power: who has it, who controls it, and who is willing to share and shift it. Despite a record number of women in leadership roles in 2022, less than one-third (32%) of executive positions globally are held by women, only 27 (out of 195) countries have women as heads of state, and in STEM careers, women earn tens of thousands of dollars less than their male counterparts. If you’re a woman of colour and/or part of the LGBTQI+ community, the numbers dip far lower.
Yet research consistently shows that women in power in both countries and companies generate greater economic and social returns and that diversity of leadership is an underutilised key to success. As one article in The Economist put it: nations who fail women fail, and the same could be said about industries. So how can legal cannabis, an industry that’s still in its infancy yet is expected to be worth upwards of US$101billion by 2026, embrace gender equity, inclusivity and racial diversity (and be better for it)?
Note: Conversations about women, gender and power should be intersectional by default. The gender binary is quickly becoming an outdated notion, women of colour face different challenges than white women, sexuality is a spectrum, and people who experience multiple marginalised identities often face more insidious barriers to social and economic mobility. All of this is reflected in the world of cannabis.
The current state of gender and racial diversity in cannabis
Like most industries, cannabis is dominated by white men.
“Being a woman in cannabis is not easy,” says Alisia Ratliff, scientist, CEO and founder of Victus Consulting Ventures, and operational director at KD Pharma Group.
“Being a woman of colour has an added layer of interest for people,” she continues.
“Sometimes that interest is very positive and like, ‘oh my gosh, we’re so happy you’re here. You represent so many communities that are underrepresented. You’re in science, in STEM. You’re a woman. You’re a woman of colour. This is awesome for us.’ And then sometimes it’s met with a negative interest or stereotype or stigma where it’s kind of like I’m less than, which I’ve definitely felt in my roles within cannabis.”
According to research carried out by MJBizDaily that looked at data from a selection of US states where cannabis is legal, more women are engaging in cannabis careers as the industry grows, but less than a quarter (23.1%) of executive positions in cannabis were held by women in 2022 and just over one-tenth (12.1%) of cannabis execs were people of colour. Another study from the University of Toronto found that 86% of executives in Canada’s cannabis industry were men and that non-white women make up only 2% of leadership roles.
This disparity is particularly evident at big global cannabis events which can offer networking and industry opportunities for participants and speakers alike.
“When a company is being represented on an international stage, like Cannabis Europa for example, the speakers tend to be CEOs, partners, presidents and other senior executive members and these roles tend to be filled by men,” explains Olivia Davis, event manager at Prohibition Partners.
“There are so many incredible women on the frontlines of the cannabis industry that don’t get a nod because they aren’t the CEOs and they’re not the executives, but they are the people that are driving this industry forward.”
Davis adds: “We aim to have a balanced programme at Cannabis Europa but this year we are also putting on additional ‘Women in Cannabis’ sessions to help boost visibility and provide a platform to women in the industry, in recognition of the current imbalance.”
When it comes to money and capital (where the real power arguably lies), the data show less than 5% of executive positions at cannabis-focused investment firms in the US were held by women in 2021.
When diving deeper into statistics from Ohio, one of the few states that included a robust social equity component as part of its medical cannabis programme (a component that has since been deemed unconstitutional), cannabis businesses owned by women of colour represent less than 5% of companies across the board.
“It’s not just diversity within gender, it’s also race as well, and this isn’t a phenomenon unique to the cannabis industry,” says Davis.
“Women, minorities and people of colour have systematically been discriminated against and they do not have the same access universally to education, capital, networks, etc., to be able to play on the same level as some of these other companies that are predominantly led by cis white men.”
Like most opportunities in life, so much of the power in the cannabis community is still being dictated on a ‘who-you-know’ (and what family you were born into) basis.
“I’ve been around start-ups where they’re at the investment stage,” says Ratliff.
“It’s like a network of who you know rather than looking at the investment as an opportunity to hire expertise that can come from underrepresented communities or from women in general.”
Women in cannabis science and research: the Matilda Effect in full swing
Visibility and representation is particularly important for women and girls in STEM, where just one-third of the world’s researchers—aka discoverers of knowledge and pioneers of new ideas—are women, and where women of colour earn the least amount of money when compared to all other genders and races in STEM careers.
“Like most other areas of capitalism, patriarchal forces are still making their imprint in the cannabis industry,” expressed Dr Adie Rae, a neuroscientist who has been studying cannabis in the US since 2004.
One way this plays out, like in many high-pressure, high-productivity careers, is through potential missed opportunities because of having a child and the associated childcare needs. Funding is notoriously competitive in scientific research and having a child can ultimately impact a birthing person’s future prospects.
“We’ve seen reports about women in science being more disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of childcare and parenting responsibilities,” explains Rae.
“That was definitely the case for me. The loss of productivity that people like myself experienced during the pandemic, that sticks with us. There’s a big hole in our CV where we had no papers, no grants and it’s such a tough funding environment. It’s simply not fair to compare us to our male counterparts who don’t have children because our professional lives were dramatically impacted by the pandemic.”
Another way gender inequality is clearly evident in cannabis science (and STEM in general) is through the ‘Matilda Effect.’ This is the idea that accomplishments of female scientists are overshadowed by the presence of their male colleagues.
“This is especially true when you have older or well-recognised men working side by side with very talented, female scientists,” says Rae.
“Just by the pure awareness of this more well-known, typically male scientist, our brains will have a bias and believe that the discovery was made by him when he might have only played a minor role. And this is definitely not limited to science.”
Rae herself has recently experienced the Matilda Effect. When a paper was published detailing the study she led on understanding what constitutes ‘quality’ cannabis, rather than reach out to Rae for quotes, her male colleagues were approached and featured in the press instead.
“This work is probably the most prominent example that I’ve personally experienced, but it’s definitely common for female scientists to be overshadowed by more senior men,” she says.
“When you’re an independent scientist and you’re responsible for the whole experiment design, execution, etc., it doesn’t make sense for your male counterparts to get all the credit for that.
She adds: “But I also want to be very explicit that my male colleagues on this paper have definitely not claimed undue credit in any way. It’s simply a fact that they are well known in the cannabis world and it is perfectly natural for someone to recognise their name and amplify their name because their readers are already aware of who this person is.”
But one missed opportunity for recognition can snowball into career-long under-appreciation, and can have lasting negative impacts on a woman scientist’s career.
“The implications are not small,” shares Rae.
“When a woman is over-looked for her major accomplishments, that means that she’s not asked to go speak at a conference and it’s at that conference where she might meet someone who has grant funding. So if she’s passed over for those speaking opportunities and those grant opportunities, her career suffers.
“I don’t think that amplifying the work of a well-known man needs to come at the cost of not recognising his not-so-well-known female counterpart. I think we can do both at the same time.”
Women cannabis consumers: a multi-billion industry opportunity
Involving women and underrepresented groups is not some altruistic endeavour; it makes sense from a profit perspective. As mentioned, diverse leadership benefits a businesses bottom line, and in the case of cannabis, having people in the room who understand and act on market potential are worth their weight in gold.
Despite the male stoner archetype, half of cannabis consumers (and sometimes more than half depending on location) are women. Yet stigma still exists around women cannabis users, particularly when it comes to parenting and motherhood.
“I experienced postpartum depression and didn’t want to take drugs that would make me feel not like myself,” shares Ratliff.
“I tried cannabis to see if it would help. From that moment on, I realised that I had the wrong stigma about this plant, and that I can be a mum and consume responsibly, and I can use it for the ailment that I need to use it for.
“I do think that women have to get over some of the blocks that we put on ourselves, and what we expect that role to look like when you become a mum.”
Davis agrees: “There is absolutely a stigma, and I think parents should be able to consume cannabis in the same way they have a glass of wine in the evening.”
Beyond the fact that half of cannabis consumers are women, half of the global population are people with very real physical and mental challenges that uniquely affect women and those who were assigned female at birth.
“It always comes back to commercial viability and this is the way we have to play the game,” explains Davis.
“But what I find interesting is that it is mainly women-led businesses that are recognising the potential. The companies that do not have a lot of women representation on their boards are missing this opportunity, yet they are the ones with the capital and the money to be able to put it into product development.”
“If a brand can infiltrate the current women’s health market with a viable relief product, they would clean up,” Davis continues.
“There are a million and one shampoo brands, but about three sanitary product brands I think most women would name off the top of their head. It’s an under saturated market where the current solution is usually painkillers. Some people don’t want to take painkillers or chemicals.
“Cannabis has been used by women for relief from their bodies for many years. It’s an opportunity for market disruption that is unique to cannabis.”
Davis makes a compelling point. Research shows that the average menstruating woman will spend more than US$6000 on period products in their lifetime.
“Sometimes my monthly time is horrible,” shares Ratliff.
“I don’t want to take ibuprofen. So I’ve been looking at research being done with CBD, THC etc. where they’re putting it in topicals that you can rub on your stomach and there’s different types of suppositories that they’re producing now, and there’s even infused tampons that are being sold in California.
“There’s so much development around using this medicinally for women and I think that’s been the biggest piece to break all the negative stigma.”
Cannabis, gender equity and diversity in the EU and UK: what’s next?
When it comes to changing systems, building an inclusive legal cannabis industry and creating socially equitable cannabis policy, the US has had a head start. But because black and brown communities in the US (and elsewhere) have been disproportionately targeted by cannabis prohibition, there is still an element of distrust in so-called legal cannabis.
“There are many people of colour that are coming into the industry, but there has also been damage done in those communities when it comes to cannabis,” Ratliff says.
“A lot of people have the skills, they have the passion, but they simply won’t jump into the industry because they just don’t trust it. They don’t trust that they’ll be protected. They don’t trust that it actually is legal and safe.”
But as investment starts to flow, so too does confidence that these opportunities are real.
“I’ve been able to get a well rounded view of how many people of colour are actually in the industry and working in plant touching businesses. There’s definitely not many in Europe and the UK and that’s mainly because it’s just so young,” says Ratliff.
“In the States, as far as resources go, we’re starting to see a big jump in investments into minority-owned and women-led businesses, and that’s been a huge positive. These communities can actually start to see some opportunity for them. They actually have access to some resources where they can make something happen in this space.”
Women and other exploited communities across the cannabis industry are also coming together to support other women and advocate for increased representation in cannabis.
Having these voices at the forefront of cannabis policy discussions will likely be critical in building trust, redressing issues of gender and racial discrimination and to building a better industry that benefits all. The budding European legal cannabis ecosystem now has an opportunity to learn from North America’s challenges by baking in gender inclusivity and diversity considerations from the start.
“It’s going to take minority associations and women-led associations getting in the rooms to influence the policymakers,” says Ratliff.
“That’s going to make the difference in just being more aware. But I think it’s easier said than done. It’s going to take the influence of associations in the industry to tell [legislators] that we need to really focus on these initiatives ahead of time.”
Davis agrees: “There are incredible groups in the states (and some in Europe) working on this, including Cannaclusive, WomenGrow, Women Employed in Cannabis, Women Empowered in Cannabis, and others that are supporting women in this space. There is so much space in the cannabis industry for strong women. We need them.”
“Women have to band together,” says Rae. “The very fact that we have women’s networking groups and women support groups [in cannabis], that tells us that there’s a reason for the movement. And the reason is inequality.”
Ratliff adds: “Look, being a woman of colour in cannabis is not easy, but it can be very, very rewarding.
“I’m really happy that I wasn’t afraid of being the only person of colour or the only woman at the table. You have to embrace those challenges because when you do it really teaches you about yourself, and it teaches you about how you can improve yourself.
“Not only to just fit into something that you wouldn’t necessarily fit in before, but to transform it from within.”
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