While prior studies have provided a novel look at diversity in the cannabis sector and served as an important initial benchmark, Jennifer Whetzel, Founder of LadyJane Branding, recognized the need to delve deeper into the experiences of women in the industry. In 2019, Whetzel began work on a mixed-methods research project documenting the stories of women in cannabis and exposing important realities in the industry. After three years of collecting interviews and data from over 1,500 participants, the Women in Cannabis Study(WICS) has released its first report.
“It wasn’t just that there was a lack of data surrounding women working in this emerging industry — it was also all the horror stories I was hearing about harassment, bullying, and lack of opportunities that really compelled me to begin this journey,” said Whetzel about the inspiration behind the study.
In the face of so many barriers, the WICS report demonstrates women’s resilience and achievements in the cannabis industry. Almost half of the participants surveyed own and run their business without any other employees. And over two—thirds sought work in cannabis to apply their skills in a new industry and follow their passion for cannabis.
WICS participants largely agreed that the cannabis industry is not equitable for women, especially those who hold an additional oppressed identity. Many participants also reported struggles with money, time, stigma, and support in the pursuit of their cannabis careers. The WICS report shows that these barriers are no match for women’s resiliency.
Participants disclosed an impressive array of skills, educational backgrounds, and perspectives. The majority of women interviewed for the study place a high value on cannabis education and have a vision of social equity for the industry. While the participants may not have received the support they needed at the beginning of their careers in cannabis, it is clear that women are determined to make the industry a better place for all people.
Those who have contributed to the study hope it will advance diversity in the industry while continually supporting businesses, consumers, and policy advocates. Not only does the report offer an abundance of data and analysis, it also features numerous profiles of women doing incredible work in the industry. The WICS report draws attention to the opportunities we have for improvement in the industry and exemplifies the type of community we must work to cultivate.
WICS significance in the cannabis industry
Women make up the vast majority of general consumer purchases and control over $20 trillion of the world’s spending power, but their leadership in business is equally as important to a successful market. The Arcview Group and National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) released a report in 2021 that further exemplified the value of women’s participation and leadership in the cannabis industry. Companies with more women in leadership are more profitable, more competitive, and more reflective of the marketplace. In fact, women-led startups produce more than twice the revenue for every dollar invested when compared to their male-led counterparts.
The findings in the Arcview and NCIA report show the need for deeper analysis like that produced in the Women in Cannabis Study. In 2017 women held 37 percent of executive-level roles in the cannabis industry. Unfortunately, that percentage has dropped to 22 percent over the last few years.
Respondents to the Women in Cannabis Study reported a wide variety of professional expertise and degrees, and the vast majority of participants said they work in cannabis out of sheer passion for the plant. Women have so much to offer this evolving and newly legal essential industry. Under the leadership of women and People of Color, cannabis has an unprecedented opportunity to be more inclusive than its industry counterparts. Approximately two-thirds of WICS participants hold advanced degrees, which is higher than the national average, but just 11 percent described the cannabis industry as an equitable place for women. The WICS report offers a hard look at these realities and cements the remarkable value women bring to the industry.
The WICS report features twelve sections exploring the roles, identities, and values of women in cannabis, as well as their passions, challenges, and experiences. The report paints a detailed picture of its respondents’ experiences and reveals some of the common threads among women working in the industry.
When asked about their motivation to work in the cannabis industry, 72 percent referenced their passion for cannabis.
Over two-thirds of participants said they sought out cannabis to apply their existing skills in a new industry.
When asked about the barriers they faced starting out in cannabis, 64 percent referenced a lack of money.
Almost three-quarters of participants feel they need to work harder than their male counterparts to get the same level of respect.
When it comes to internal barriers, 73 percent of participants reported undercharging for their time and labor.
Women in cannabis believe in its power
When respondents were asked why they work in cannabis, the majority said they were personally helped by cannabis use, and 45 percent said someone close to them was helped by the plant. Many of the women who were interviewed described cannabis as their calling and their community. Study participants also indicated the values they place in education, wellness, sustainability, compassion, and inclusivity – all of which they bring to their work. Over two-thirds of participants said they are daily users and that they consume for health benefits, regardless of their status as state-certified medical patients. It is clear that women are passionate about the plant and their belief in its power drives much of their participation in the industry.
Women face untenable barriers in the industry
When it comes to diversity, the cannabis industry has a responsibility to empower the leadership of those who have been affected most adversely by prohibition. Participants in the study revealed the disparity in power, respect, and support between women of color, queer women, disabled women, and white women.
Over two-thirds of participants identified money as the biggest barrier to success in the industry, but shame creates another barrier. Over half of the women surveyed said they had been shamed for both their cannabis consumption and their cannabis career. The majority of participants also reported an insufficient level of support from other women in the industry and personal experience with harmful sexist dynamics in the workplace.
In comparison to the results of all study participants, Black participants held higher education levels and were more likely to seek out a career in cannabis to manifest their dreams, make space for themselves in the industry with ancillary services, and value inclusivity. These results reflect the value Black women bring to cannabis and the importance of creating a space where People of Color are not barred from entry. Due to stigma, Black women in the study were less likely to be open about their cannabis use than white women, and 41 percent told WICS they feel the need to hide their job. Around two-thirds of Black participants also stated they undercharge for their time and struggle to assert the value of their labor.
In the WICS report, BIPOC and LGBTQ respondents disclosed significantly higher rates of sexual harassment, bullying, isolation, and hypercriticism in their careers. The disparities confirmed by this study reveal discouraging dynamics that still play a strong role within the cannabis industry. While women with oppressed identities face more barriers to success in cannabis, their participation and inclusion is crucial to the market as a whole.
“There are insurmountable challenges facing women working in cannabis, but refreshingly, the majority of survey respondents consider themselves successful. I think this truly speaks volumes to the passion these women have and their resiliency as it relates to the obstacles they confront,” said Rachelle Gordon, WICS Study Partner.
Women are bringing a plethora of skills to cannabis
The Women in Cannabis Study revealed the diverse set of skills and educational backgrounds women bring to the cannabis industry. Over two-thirds of the study participants stated that they sought out cannabis to try their skills in a new industry. The majority of those surveyed had a bachelor’s or post-graduate degree, which is over 20 percent higher than the national percentage of working women with degrees. Respondents also came from a diversity of career and educational backgrounds, holding degrees in everything from microbiology to social welfare with a wide array of career experience in roles like higher education and foodservice. And while the majority of respondents live in legalized states, they come from a wide variety of communities.
Women in cannabis need more support
The Women in Cannabis Study confirmed what many women in the industry may deem obvious – women are not receiving the support they need and deserve. When asked about the biggest sacrifices they made for their careers, the majority of respondents listed money, time with family, self-care, and mental health. Almost half of the study respondents reported owning their own business and employing no other workers in their company, and one-fifth reported working multiple jobs in the cannabis industry. Nearly all participants reported internal barriers to success, such as a lack of self-advocacy, the inability to set workload boundaries, and internalized devaluation. These results indicate that many women in cannabis are unnecessarily isolated from their counterparts and universally suffering.
What will the future look like for WICS?
The results of the Women in Cannabis Study have provided its creators with a number of new questions to explore and motivation to continue building a cannabis industry with an inclusive culture. The report showed women working everywhere in the cannabis industry, and despite incredible success, they are continually facing a slew of barriers. Reflecting on the study, Whetzel proposed, “We have to be honest with ourselves about how we can do better before we’re able to take meaningful action within our own networks and the industry as a whole. Be willing to admit your mistakes and speak up when injustices occur. We can break the cycle.”
While the data provided in the first report is extremely valuable, it is not comprehensive. Whetzel has stated that future editions of the study will focus on recruiting a more representative sample from the industry. In this study, 44 percent of respondents were executives and business owners, and only seven percent were in entry-level positions. Additionally, less than one-fourth of the respondents identified as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color (BIPOC).
The racial identities of the respondents roughly mirrored those of the general population, but history tells us we must continue to uplift the experiences, voices, and leadership of the BIPOC community to counteract the effects of cannabis prohibition enforcement. The cannabis industry originated under BIPOC leadership in the informal market, and it was American racism that acted as a major motivator behind prohibition. The War on Cannabis has enabled years of systemic violence against People of Color, and the creators of the Women in Cannabis Study intend to help reverse the damage caused by prohibition.
Upon analysis of the most recent study, WICS uncovered a new question to explore. A significant majority of respondents indicated that male allyship is critical to women’s success in cannabis, but just 49 percent agreed that male allyship was helpful in their personal careers. The Women in Cannabis Study is curious about the significance behind these two findings and will delve more deeply into the dynamics of male allyship in the cannabis industry.
When asked about their biggest barriers to success, the majority of respondents indicated that finding clients and customers was the most difficult part of their initial work in the industry. Respondents were also asked how other women have provided support to them in their careers. Almost all the participants indicated that the most helpful thing other women did for them was make connections and introductions. Connecting the diverse professionals throughout the cannabis industry is a vital part of the Women in Cannabis Study, and this finding further supports the need for women in the industry to continue communicating, building networks, and connecting one another with resources for success.