When Giadha DeCarcer entered the cannabis industry nearly ten years ago, she was surprised by the number of women she met in what she remembers as an extremely dynamic and opportunity-filled business, marked by a much higher level of gender diversity than the financial sector she had come from.

Women started entering the sector right at its beginning, rapidly gaining leadership positions; by 2015 well over one third of US executives in cannabis companies were female. In 2017 this figure was down to 26% but still above the national average in all US business, which reached 23% the same year.

Figures then started to oscillate, until, according to an industry survey conducted in 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2022, they dropped from nearly 37% in 2019 to a mere 22% of women holding executive positions in the cannabis industry in 2021, and remained stagnant at the same level in 2022.

 

On the defensive and in denial

 

“Men started bringing the money in and we were [even more of] a minority,” DeCarcer told CannIntelligence. “I am still trying to navigate and survive.”

DeCarcer is now the CEO and founder of CTrust, a financial advisory for the cannabis industry. She also founded and sits on the board of New Frontier Data, a global analytics firm for the sector.

“I am always on the defensive,” she said, “because even if you make it in a male-dominated environment, when you go to battle with men, they win, as they have the resources and their boys’ club.”

According to DeCarcer, gender inequality will only increase as the sector moves away from its core nature to focus on finance and capital, where female presence is still very low.

“The further away the industry moves from the plants and the patients, the harder it is going to become for women,” she said.

When bringing up the issue to fellow male executives, DeCarcer said, she has often been confronted with attitudes of denial. “We now have almost half the number of women in executive positions in the cannabis industry that we did a few years back, and they still say we don’t have a problem. But the thing is there will soon be no women left to complain about it.”

 

The impact on profits of a ‘white men’s club’ scenario

 

Capital flow into the cannabis industry has declined dramatically in the past few years, with the total value of raised equity dropping by 76% in 2022 in North America based on research by Viridian Capital Advisors.

While a connection between a decreased level of diversity and a lack of capital in the industry has not been researched, many blame it partly on bad management and bad leadership in environments marked by a lack of gender balance.

“Under-qualified men and even people with criminal records are being promoted over their female colleagues,” DeCarcer said, adding that she had personally seen multiple examples of this.

“A higher level of tolerance was a good thing early on because it helped minorities with petty crime records be reintegrated, but now it’s becoming a problem leading to bad decisions and scandals, which scare investors away.”

According to DeCarcer, increasing gender balance in the business would help achieve better governance and transparency. “Diversity and equality would help a lot, because they would break the white men’s club scenario of a small industry with a small support system where men feel they have a responsibility to hang on to each other,” she said.

While the dynamics of a white, male-dominated environment may reflect negatively on the industry’s performance, also contributing to a decline in profits are women’s cross-sector difficulties in accessing capital, which increased due to the financial impact of the Covid—19 pandemic. For example, in the US in 2018, all female founders put together received $10bn less in funding than one e-cigarette company, Juul, took in by itself.

 

Have men bought their way in?

 

Based on the Women in Cannabis study authored by cannabis branding expert Jennifer Whetzel, which surveyed 1,500 women in the US cannabis sector in 2020, 68% of the interviewees indicated the challenges they faced obtaining resources and funding as a significant barrier to entering the industry.

According to Heidi Whitman, global business development and strategy officer with CBD firm Swiss KannaVations, in a very young industry like that of cannabis, leading roles tend to be occupied by the same men who brought capital into the business regardless of their skills, which makes many female professionals flee to other sectors.

“I think a lot of women don’t feel that they can grow because these bullish kind of men are at the top, flexing their muscles and their money. A lot of them have bought their positions, they haven’t earned their positions,” she told CannIntelligence.

“I do think women’s barriers to accessing capital, which is probably why many don’t own the companies that they should, is a very big problem.”

Whitman thinks that the lack of gender diversity is particularly bad for cannabis companies, whose customers are mostly women. “We have a consumer base that’s mostly female, how can you not have your office?”

She added: “This is going back to not listening to what the consumers want. Men are not looking at how endometriosis feels, they are not thinking hot flashes are terrible. If you look at what’s being sold on the market or provided for patients, number one, it’s inconsistent, number two, it’s not what they need.”

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    ‘A chance to be better’

     

    According to Whitman, whose group has launched an association in Switzerland to mentor women approaching the cannabis sector both as professionals and consumers, a young industry like cannabis still has the opportunity to learn from its own and other sectors’ mistakes as far as diversity and inclusion are concerned.

    “We have a chance to be better,” she said. “We are a bunch of disruptors – why are we doing the same stuff that everyone else does?”

    Swiss KannaVations CEO Michela Mastropietro, now 28 years old, may represent an example of how things can already be better. She started out in the industry at a very young age, when she left her job in finance for the cannabis industry. She then managed to fight her way into a leading position after leaving the first cannabis company she worked for.

    “I was 20 years young when I entered the sector,” she told CannIntelligence. “I realised that the cannabis industry was at the beginning of a revolution I was highly interested in, so I decided to risk it all and follow my instinct. I experienced that there were and still are a lot of decision-makers who struggle to give leadership roles to women.”

    Farida Hussain, founder and managing director of Portugal-based consulting firm Dovetail, believes the cannabis industry she entered five years ago is no more challenging than others when it comes to diversity.

    “The reality is there are a lot of men in the industry and it is a male-dominated industry, but at the same time I see a lot of women stepping up more,” she told CannIntelligence.

    “I am a woman of colour and my last name is Hussain. It doesn’t get any better than that,” she said. “But I own my business and I am going to use all those things to my advantage by making sure that I stand out in the right way and I associate with the right people.”

     

    The sexual harassment issue

     

    Like all other industries, the cannabis sector is not immune to sexual harassment against women in all positions.

    Over 30% of the women surveyed by the Women in Cannabis study reported having experienced sexual harassment in the cannabis industry.

    In March, when Barcelona, Spain, played host to a number of international cannabis events attracting executives and experts from across the world, a woman was physically harassed by a man at a conference afterparty. A female colleague, Rebecca Allen-Tapp, was among the very few people who tried to protect her until security finally arrived on the spot.

    Allen-Tapp, business development manager for global flow and batch chemistry reactor systems manufacturer Syrris, told CannIntelligence: “When I talk to women about what happened in Barcelona, too many of them would say they’ve had a similar experience.”

    Allen-Tapp says she knows sexual harassment episodes are not uncommon in the cannabis industry.

    “I think that it causes a lot of turnover, definitely,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who was deterred from entering the industry because of it, but I know people who have left the industry because of it.”

     

    A tougher battle in younger industries

     

    Although she did stay in the industry, Allen-Tapp left a previous employer because she was sexually harassed by a male colleague.

    The firm she worked for was aware of the reason she left, but the perpetrator kept his position and suffered no consequences.

    According to recruiter and career coach Stephanie Pow, though not more frequent than in other industries, episodes of sexual harassment may be less likely to be sanctioned in young industries like that of cannabis, where proper human resources policies are not set up.

    “In some of the established markets this is no longer tolerated,” Pow, the founder of Canada-based Emerald Lane Recruitment, told CannIntelligence. “In the cannabis sector HR is not necessarily a priority, so when harassment happens, who do you go to?”

    Allen-Tapp said she had to learn to protect her boundaries by herself, but that was not an easy process.

    “I’ve only recently got comfortable saying things like ‘you’ve crossed the line’ or ‘don’t make that joke’, because I think we are so afraid to stand up for ourselves,” Allen-Tapp said. “And it doesn’t serve us to do that.”

    – Tiziana Cauli CannIntelligence staff

    Photo: Windows

    Tiziana Cauli

    Senior reporter
    Tiziana is an Italian journalist from Sardinia. She has worked for both international and local media in Italy, South Africa, France, Spain, the UK, Lebanon and Belgium. She also worked as a communications manager for several international NGOs in the humanitarian sector.