It’s been great to see the cannabis industry embrace products and services designed specifically for women’s health, wellness and pleasure.
But what’s been less heartening is that this influx of female-focused product design, production and marketing has not translated into a greater focus on gender equity in the industry, or equal treatment from media outlets covering this burgeoning sector.
So for my latest Cannabis Business Executive column—where I regularly unpack the art of public relations in the cannabis industry—I want to take a deeper look at gender equality in the cannabis industry through the lens of the media.
Before we can dive into media treatment of gender in the cannabis industry, we have to examine the state of gender equity in the industry itself.
Less than two years ago, headlines like “Are Women Taking Charge of the Cannabis Industry?” and “Women Break the Grass Ceiling in the Cannabis Industry” were flooding our news feeds. Women’s trajectory towards greater representation at the highest ranks of leadership in the industry seemed a near certainty.
But today, that promising momentum has largely fizzled out. Female cannabis executives have not risen to a level of representation similar to that of their male counterparts. In fact, the percentage of women holding executive-level positions has been declining. Between 2015 and the end of 2017, female executive leadership in the cannabis industry dipped significantly from 36 percent to 27 percent, according to Marijuana Business Daily.
This declining portion of female executives has coincided with rapid market expansion and a massive influx of new people and companies establishing themselves in this industry. And as the industry becomes larger and more lucrative, executives from finance, tech and other industries are moving into the cannabis sector.
In the early days of Colorado’s legal marketplace, barriers to entry and licensing constraints were low. But now, you need to have millions in the bank to even be considered for a license in many states. Men have far better access to venture capital in this country. And that’s starting to have a real impact on gender equity in the cannabis industry. As access to traditional venture capital becomes a prerequisite to enter this industry, the composition of industry leadership is starting to look a lot more traditional (read: old, white and male).
There is a persistent and unfortunate tendency in mass media to assess the progress and success of women primarily in relation to the progress and success of men. Men are the benchmark, and female status is only relevant insofar as it reflects on male status.
And though female leadership is declining in this industry, you’d be hard pressed to know that based on the widespread tenor of media coverage still describing female executive representation in the industry as strong (in relation to women’s representation in the wider male-dominated business landscape, of course). If the tables were turned and men claimed just 27 percent of executive roles in the cannabis industry, how do you suppose that would be described in the media?
Surely nobody would be calling 27 percent strong representation for men.
Even well-meaning journalists often bring unconscious gender bias to stories featuring women executives. Business stories about female executives often identify gender or age—or both—in the headline. This almost never happens with stories about male executives.
And more than a few times, I’ve been witness to interviewers asking personal questions of female CEOs that they do not ask of male CEOs. (“How do you juggle the responsibilities of being a parent and being an executive,” etc.)
Of course, this heavy focus on a woman’s gender above all other identifying achievements and characteristics is a wide societal problem, and not confined to the cannabis industry alone. But it’s especially unfortunate to see the same old exclusionary patterns of male-dominated corporate America play out in an industry that has long identified along progressive and nonconformist lines.
We can do better. And we must do better. We owe it to ourselves and each other to recognize gender bias and do our best to eradicate it. We must continue setting a high bar for the rest of the business community to follow.