Women in the Cannabis Industry: When is Enough Enough?

International Women’s Day 2021

by Bridget Hennessey, Vice President for Government Relations at Weedmaps

Once asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously replied, “when there are nine.”

“People were shocked when I said that,” Ginsburg added. “But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

I love that story. It’s one of among a million reasons why Ginsburg was my professional role model, “shero” and inspiration. I mourned her greatly when she died last September at age 87 — not just for myself, but for my two daughters. Will there be a “Notorious R.B.G” for them and their generation to inspire, guide and exemplify? I can only hope.

I think of the “how many women are enough” question — and her extraordinary answer — all the time, as I’m often asked similar questions about women in the cannabis industry. How are they faring? How many are there? Is that enough?

These questions are important to ask, particularly now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced work in America to change in unprecedented ways. Nearly 3 million women have left the labor force over the past year in a coronavirus-induced exodus that has also brought to the forefront issues like the pay gap (women earn about 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, with women of color earning even less); how women are chronically undervalued in the workplace; and the “choices’’ women are forced to make between a paying job and a non-paying one . . . or two (raising children and/or caring for aging parents).

The pandemic gave legal cannabis a credibility and respectability bump when governors (Democrats and Republicans) deemed dispensaries as essential businesses (like pharmacies) and kept them operating while other businesses were forced to shut down. In addition, as a result of pandemic-related business closures, state and local governments — in search of new streams of tax revenue to support important civic services — are looking to cannabis businesses in a new light: as a component of their economic recovery. It’s my hope that the women who have been forced out of jobs and careers by COVID-19 are catapulted back into the workforce by opportunities provided by legal cannabis businesses.

Such an influx would do the industry good. But until then, a few things to consider as we contemplate the status of women in the cannabis industry today and the role they will play in its future:

We are building the plane as we fly it. The legal cannabis industry both here in the US and around the world is nascent. We aren’t finished creating it just yet. Today, one-in-three Americans live in a state where adult-use cannabis is legal. That’s an impressive indicator of how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

So it’s important to constantly remind ourselves that we have a unique opportunity to build the industry the right way. And the “right way” includes making sure that women — particularly women of color — are broadly represented in both traditional and nontraditional roles in the cannabis business ecosystem. We tend to focus too often on women “at the top” of the industry — with cannabis trade publications compiling lists like “most powerful” or “most influential.” But we must never lose focus on mid-career and women just embarking on their career journey. They are “the bench” that will lead the industry into maturity.

About 44 percent of the companies in the cannabis industry have a majority of women employees. In addition, around 37 percent of senior level jobs are held by women. Although that number was higher a few years ago, it’s significantly better than most other industries.

The cannabis industry consists of many different “industries.” And not every industry “touches the plant.” Agriculture, manufacturing and retail sales are among the plant touching components that come quickly to mind. But ancillary industries (like legal, marketing, technology, accounting, media, security and supply chain logistics) also have a critical role. And don’t forget the local, state, national trade and professional organizations and associations that advocate and work to advance almost every aspect of the industry at every level. They are a big part of the industry. Finally, the public sector — including the legislative and regulatory bureaucracies at every level of government — are also part of the industry. That’s why along with many of my Weedmaps colleagues, I’m working closely with Emerge America to recruit and train pro-legalization women to run for political office, and educating and empowering current lawmakers by supporting the National Foundation of Women Legislators.

And one last thing to consIder: Despite the fact that the global legal cannabis market is valued at USD 17.5 billion (in 2019) and predicted to reach market value around USD 65.1 billion by 2027, every person working within it is also an activist and advocate. Until cannabis is descheduled and legal in every state of the union and every country around the world, it will not only be an “industry” but also a “cause.” And whether the cause is social equity, personal freedom, health and wellness, states’ rights, criminal justice or just plain legalization . . . women are particularly adept, comfortable and successful in combining occupational professionalism with occupational activism. Every day, in almost every industry and almost every workplace, women are not only doing the work, but also advocating for the right to do it. In the cannabis industry, it doesn’t matter if you are a budtender, an accountant, work in a testing lab, or provide dispensary security — you are a fighter for change.

“Every day, in almost every industry and almost every workplace, women are not only doing the work, but also advocating for the right to do it.”

And that’s why one of the most exciting by-products of the legal cannabis movement has been the number of organizations and opportunities for women to come together, learn, teach and network.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women,” is my favorite quote from another role model of mine: former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. If that’s the case, heaven will be overcrowded with weed women.

Some examples: Women Grow, a powerhouse organization (45 chapters) with an impressive record of not only connecting, educating, and empowering cannabis women, but also setting the standard for professionalism throughout the industry. Or the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition, a fairly new organization of women — political appointees and career civil servants — in senior government positions doing jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago — regulating an industry that didn’t exist a few years ago. People in positions like that traditionally rely on support and guidance of others that have “been there and done that.” But those mentors do not exist, so they must rely on each other. A group like this is important because the success of the industry depends in many ways on the success of the programs and initiatives that these women oversee and run.

I see the value and impact of these groups and many others like them every day. Not only do I lead Weedmaps’ government relations team, I’m also the president of our largest employee affinity group, Women of Weedmaps (WoW). Besides professional development, mentoring, career guidance, and general support and networking (it’s importance cannot be discounted as employees have been working from home for almost a year), WoW is making a difference in the company’s culture, and innovating in areas like talent recruiting. Although we still have a lot of work ahead of us, everyday we are a better company because of WoW.

So, when will there be enough women in the cannabis industry that we can call it a success? And how will we get there?

Well, as you can imagine, I’ve got a quote for that, too. And it comes from a woman I admire immensely.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama has warned that “no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potentials of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens.”

I’d argue that no institution, corporation, association or industry could either.

Bridget Hennessey is a Vice President of Weedmaps and heads the company’s Government Relations Department.