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The Grass Ceiling: Women Are Still Underrepresented in the Budding Cannabis Industry

by Zoë Lourey-Christianson

The legal cannabis industry is growing at a rapid rate—last year Forbes published a piece that estimated legal cannabis could potentially rake in $57 billion by 2030 in the U.S. alone. The budding new industry has major potential for financial gain and could be a great opportunity to break away from the tired status quo of high-earning companies with C-suites full of white men. But, as the industry continues to expand, it appears women and minorities are still being excluded from positions of power by what is referred to as “the grass ceiling.”

According to Business Insider, 70% of the top executives at the fourteen biggest cannabis companies are white men. Meanwhile, a report from MJBizDaily found that women who hold executive level positions in the cannabis industry fell from 36.8% in 2019 down to 23.1% in 2022. That is a significant drop, and could possibly be attributed, at least in part, to the pandemic. However, this number is still far below the chief executive positions held by women at mainstream companies, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as 29.1%.

It’s going to take hard work and time to dismantle the systems that have historically put straight, white, men at the top of nearly every sector and industry. So, it is especially disappointing to see such a profitable, innovative industry like legal cannabis being built from the ground up using the exact same materials as its exclusionary predecessors. 

It is a ginormous missed opportunity to set a new standard for how major corporations function and who gets seats at the metaphorical and literal table. Cannabis could be a blueprint for how sustainable, equitable, and profitable industries can and should operate, but the low, stagnant, numbers of women in executive positions does not bode well for that sentiment. 

Since the industry is so brand-new, there isn’t a ton of data to work from when it comes to trying to disrupt the baked-in exclusion of women from high-level roles in cannabis. That’s why Jennifer Whetzel founded and led the Women in Cannabis Study—which began in October 2020 and concluded in January of 2021—and conducted qualitative surveys and interviews with over 1,600 women and nonbinary cannabis industry workers. Whetzel told Forbes, “When I set out to conduct the Women in Cannabis Study, I was compelled not just by the fascinating and dynamic experiences of women in our space, but also by the desire to amplify voices and create a safe, equitable industry for all. We have the chance to shift the paradigm, acknowledge the barriers in our way, and build a supply chain based on integrity.”

The study’s report features many quotes from the people surveyed, and one cannabis business manager shared, “Overall, my experience in cannabis has more robustly informed my knowledge of inherent white male privilege and the ability of men to network and gain trust in the industry (it’s easy when you don’t grow up hearing ‘no’ or experiencing career-related microaggressions due to your gender). This is true of almost any industry, but the cannabis industry has a greater responsibility/opportunity due to its youth and lack of existing inhibiting structures you find in more traditional industries.” 

Despite being sorely underrepresented in cannabis board rooms, the number of women consuming cannabis is increasing drastically. A report from Headset, a cannabis analytics company, states that year-over-year cannabis sales grew most rapidly amongst Gen Z women, for example, in 2020 it increased by 151% from the year prior. Additionally, Brightfield Group, a market research group focused on CBD and cannabis, reported that 59% of new cannabis users are women and that women also tend to be heavier consumers than men. 

One thing is clear: if the cannabis industry wants to reach its full potential, it’s going to have to start prioritizing women as both consumers and leaders. 

So, what’s stopping the cannabis industry from having more women in C-suites, especially considering it is such a woman-dense market? CEO and cofounder of cannabis company Miss Grass, Kate Miller, told Forbes that, “Being a woman, the gender minority in many industries, has its challenges. Many people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, do business with people they feel the most comfortable with, and share the most common characteristics with, which reinforces the ‘boys club’ mentality in business.”  

The Women in Cannabis Study includes an entire section dedicated to taking the information they gathered and putting it to good use. The report states, “Creating a more inclusive and equitable industry will require introspection, self-reflection, education, personal responsibility, active allyship, systemic changes and BIG ideas.” 

Cannabis has culturally always skewed more masculine, with the stoner trope typically conjuring up an image of a greasy-haired, under-motivated, beanie-wearing dude (yes, I did use James Franco’s character in Pineapple Express as a reference). But, as legal cannabis becomes more mainstream and the market grows to accommodate a wider range of products, women are joining in on the fun and helping innovate the industry. 

From groundbreaking shows like Broad City, to emerging women-owned cannabis and accessory brands (like Edie Parker, Rollin Rosa, and Valfré) and even cannabis social media influencers like Kitty Bang and Emily Lee, women are leaving their mark on cannabis culture. The next step is mowing down that grass ceiling and getting to leave their mark in the C-suites, too.

Top photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels

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