The Shrinking Women of the Cannabis Industry

If you’ve ever read the comments section on any article that discusses women’s lack of representation in the upper echelons of corporate America you’ll quickly find that the topic triggers a knee-jerk reaction amongst the anti-affirmative action set. That said, this article is not for those that feel threatened by the very concept of equity, but for those, like myself, who are looking around and wondering why.


In the company of men

Of course, anecdotally, for all of the women who have built careers working in offices full of men, we can feel why. We know the feeling, even if we can’t describe it, of being told “you smell good” or being touched low on the curve of the hip by the faint hand of a man from the C-suite as you enter the room to pitch your strategy. We know intuitively that these behaviors (almost laughably minuscule when recounted in singularity) are directly related to the stifling of our talents and compensation in the workplace.

It is in the quick subversion of power that happens in a blink and the subsequent sinking feeling that hits before the lights go low and the PowerPoint goes up. Now you know that it matters not how loud you speak, you may not be heard over the echo of the moment that just passed. “I like those shoes on you.”

This is not that

But this article is not that. That story is old, tired, as worn out in the news as it is in our own heads. The purge is over, the tales still hang in the wind for all brave enough to look. The healing must begin. The tears are dry now, so the vision is clearer. The time has come to seek answers.

Thus, I bring you some data points to ponder. A quick survey of what experts and journalists are digging up in regards to women as leaders in the cannabis space, as CEOs in general, and how funding favors not the bold, but the boys—a distinction of great import, and what we should do about it.

Down we go

Marijuana Business Daily reported in August of 2017 that women in executive roles in the cannabis industry decreased over the last two years, down to 27% from 36%. What many had hoped was going to be an industry run by women—female plant, female leaders—has quickly morphed into the mirror image of corporate America at large. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up close to 47% of the workforce, yet men hold over 75% of senior leadership roles. With women leading 27% of cannabis businesses, one could argue the industry has officially arrived at status quo American corporate hegemony.

There are some glaring reasons why this is happening. Marijuana Business Daily reports that cannabis companies are “increasingly plucking executives from corporate America as they mature and the industry becomes more attractive.” The publication goes on to say that these “trends tend to favor men, who often have more connections in the investment and finance worlds – which can be very valuable for a company looking to raise money.” Money.

Let’s talk about money.

Follow the money
Investment capital is the lifeblood of the corporate ecosystem. Because of the resiliently immeshed relationship between corporate leadership and access to capital, or access to those that have it, male corporate leaders enjoy a monopoly that doubles as a closed loop barrier to entry for women.

This exclusive landscape partially explains why only 2.2% of venture capital went to women-led companies last year. And of that 2.2% that broke through, lies another layer of inequity. An article in Forbes by Valentina Zarya cited that the “average deal size for a woman-led company in 2017 was just over $5 million. For a man-led company, that number is a little less than $12 million.” When women do get money, they get less. A lot less.

Zarya went on to write that research has also found that “women tend to be judged on performance and men on potential—giving men a leg up when it comes to raising funds.” In essence, male VCs want to hear world-changing ideas from men but want women to prove their worth to them based on past performance—a challenge when women are less likely to hold senior roles in the corporations we built our careers in. There it is again, that closed loop.

Performance anxiety, not so much

If we as women at large are to accept that we not only have to have world-changing ideas but also prove ourselves to the men that hold the money in order to have our companies backed, here are some data points to keep in your back pocket.

Jena McGregor of The Washington Post writes that “companies with a woman in the chief executive or chairman role have performed far better than a major global index over the past eight years, according to an analysis by the bank Nordea of nearly 11,000 companies globally.”

What is “far better,” you ask? McGregor goes on to report that the “annualized return for female-led firms, based on an equal weighting, was 25% since 2009, compared with just 11% for the broader market.” That’s more than double. As far as board seats, women improve performance there as well.  “Credit Suisse, for example,” McGregor writes, “has found that having a woman on the board was associated with better performance and that having more female top managers was associated with higher returns on equity, valuations, and payout of dividends, as well as better stock performance.”

No doubt male VCs will love the smell of those odds. Those numbers look good on everybody.


Look forward, and then up

It does not matter that only 24% of male board members feel that diversity improves corporate performance. All that statistic tells us is that most men in power feel they are the pinnacle of success—that no one can do what they do better than they can. But we already knew that. Remember that quote from the Handmaid’s Tale? Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them. I am certainly not implying that male VCs want to kill women, but the insight behind the quote is meaningful when applied to examine power dynamics and what diversity actually means to those in charge.

I am not going to wax poetic on the good old days of the cannabis black market—the days of the Pot Brownie Lady of San Francisco, when women were free to operate on the fringes and deal in cash stashed neatly under futons—because we all know the patriarchy lives and breathes there, too, and in some circles, more dangerously so.

Today, we see the normalization of cannabis has begun. Yes taxes are unsustainable and the black market is still thriving, and prison sentences are not being expunged, all the while watching Republican and former Speaker John Boehner join the board of a cannabis company in order to cash in on the Green Rush. The cannabis industry is full of hypocrisy, and injustice, and misogyny—in other words, it looks a lot like corporate America.

There are so few women in real positions of power in this country, and the emergence of the regulated cannabis industry has allowed us to watch the cannibalization of its female leaders in timelapse. The antidote lies in organization and collaboration.

It’s time to maintain the ‘women in cannabis’ support networks that address industry-specific challenges—like MJ Lifestyle who is actively building networks to connect women all over the world to educate and advocate for the many benefits of the cannabis plant—but to also join forces with women leaders in all market segments, who are working hard to earn their rightful place at the table. For Women-owned Cannabis Companies, like MJ Lifestyle, it isn’t just a case of funding, but partnering with investors with like-minded values and company ethos.  A shared vision for a more equitable economy is where it starts. To not just look forward, but up, collectively.

For more resources on how to get connect with other entrepreneurial women check out:

The Assembly SF

The Wing

Supernova Woman



By: April Cole Worley

Bio: April, a writer, and marketer who holds a master’s degree in Political Science, leads Mender, a full spectrum CBD bodycare brand based out of San Luis Obispo, CA.