Cannabis industry lags woefully on gender parity despite its pink lens

A Toronto company says women-led small businesses are the key to breaking up the boys' club.

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From outside the green bubble, the world hails Canada’s cannabis industry as a great equalizer—a former boys’ club primed for gender parity.

Upon closer inspection, the abysmally low number of female directors and board members unveils a less radical corporate infrastructure, worse than that of other traditionally male-dominated industries.

And it’s really no surprise the world is bemused. While chumming the waters with statistics on the purchasing habits of the once-invisible female consumer, PR teams race to mount the stuffed heads of their few female cohorts over the industry’s mantelpiece, feigning proportional representation. They pink their products, boast about the purportedly menstruation-friendly ones, and toss out numbers on soccer moms buying pot in droves now the shadow of stigma has been cast aside.

From the consumer perspective, these all look like womancentric strategies.

When the Green Tent, a company advocating for female entrepreneurship in the cannabis industry, did its own digging, however, it became clear to its three founders that men are still making the decisions.

Conducting an independent study, cofounder Emma Baron found that women filled five percent of the directorial positions in publicly traded cannabis companies in 2016. When she ran the numbers again in May of 2017, it had only risen to eight percent.

“The mining industry hovers around 13 percent and gets attention from the government for lacking representation,” Baron tells the Georgia Straight.

She brought this to the attention of Bardish Chagger, then the federal minister of small business, at a women’s entrepreneurial conference in 2018, but she got no response upon further inquiry. At the same event, she learned that the government had earmarked $1.4 billion over three years for financing women’s enterprises. Unfortunately for the cannabis industry, most is going to businesses with established supply chains ready for export—not ideal for the early startup sector, which is made up mostly of women, Baron says.

According to Green Tent cofounder Tabitha Fritz: “We realized women already involved in the industry need to find a way to support those trying to break into it, from early entrepreneurship all the way up to business leadership and board membership.” She adds that Health Canada’s regulations, which were introduced in October 2018, only exacerbated the divide.

“What it [the legal framework] has done is support the entrepreneurship of the wealthy, well-established, and well-connected, which is a group made up almost entirely of men. As it stands, the framework really ignores small-business entrepreneurship, which we have seen in our research to be the place where a lot of female entrepreneurship takes place.”

Baron, Fritz, and fellow partner Irie Selkirk founded the company last year, taking its name from Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent. The three all have already established careers in the cannabis industry and were inspired by their firsthand experience of the stark lack of support for female entrepreneurship. They now use the Green Tent to host workshops and activations, at Canadian and international cannabis events, to bolster budding companies. Using their own network, they arm attendees with skills and mentorship opportunities, facilitating their entry into the highly competitive and rapidly evolving industry.

All three of the company's founders wear a number of hats already—each a mother with full-time careers rooted in cannabis. Baron is the founder of Milkweed, a company that creates sustainable accessories from natural products. Fritz runs her own business consulting firm and sits on the advisory board at Niche Canada. Selkirk is the vice president of consumer education and outreach at Fleurish, a licensed cannabis producer. They say despite their already demanding schedules, they founded the Green Tent out of neccessity, adding there is both a desperate need for more interest but also a welcoming place for women to network. 

"The original inspiration came from attending cannabis conferences where we each observed that the majority of women attending, whether they were speakers or attendees, were engaging off the conference floor," says Fritz. "We recognized that we wanted to do something that would address that and make the industry more comfortable."

By setting up shop in the centre of heavily male-dominated expo floors, from Toronto to Jamaica, the Green Tent activations provide female industry hopefuls with a safe place to "kick off their heels" and talk business. On top of that, the company's more lighthearted workshops—which teach skills like the basics of rolling joint, hosting infused dinners, and incorporating weed into fitness regimines—serve to destigmatize and normalize consumption. 

Selkirk says something unique to the cannabis industry she has noticed is that women tend to be more motivated to explore professional opportunities when supported by a community of like-minded individuals who help legitimize their personal use.

“Sometimes all you need is that sense of solidarity to be empowered to figure out the next steps,” Fritz adds. “What we’re providing for women is the knowledge that they’re not alone.”

This isn’t to say large male-led corporations aren’t slowly tryig to bridge the divide. Canopy Growth Corporation recently announced the promotion of its director of patient education and advocacy, Hilary Black, to chief advocacy officer.

Last year, Canopy also bought the brand Van der Pop through the acquisition of Hiku Brands. With the injection of capital, the Seattle start-up has become widely recognized as the most popular female-focused brand in the space.

"When you look at what cognitive diversity does to your bottom line, it's a no-brainer," says Fritz.

Selkirk adds men have just as much of an invested interest and responsibility to catalyze the change too. “We are asking people to look within their organization right now. You have women who have industry knowledge, corporate backgrounds, experience—there is no reason you can’t scale those women up.

“The question we get the most is ‘Where do we find these women?’ And what we end up telling most people is ‘You most likely already have.’ ”