Women in weed: charting change for male-dominated cannabis culture
Women face uphill battle to reach top of cannabis business, but there are signs it can be done
Jamie Shaw wasn't seeking a career change when she visited her doctor to help her deal with anxiety.
To her surprise, she was encouraged to try medical marijuana and visit the B.C. Compassion Club Society.
"I thought it was the funniest damn thing I ever heard," she said, adding she didn't expect to be prescribed marijuana.
She took her doctor's advice, left her career in the film industry and in less than two decades went from a newcomer in the city's cannabis scene to one of its leaders and strongest advocates.
"Going to the club, that changed everything about how I approach cannabis."
Shaw now works as government relations director for MMJ Canada, a chain of dispensaries with locations in B.C. and Ontario, while also helping industry newcomers secure proper business licences.
Recreational marijuana is scheduled to become legal across Canada this summer. And with StatsCan estimating Canadians spent a whopping $5.7 billion on marijuana last year, the business is rife with leadership and business opportunities, spurring hopes that women could play key roles in the emerging industry.
While B.C. is home to some of the Canadian cannabis industry's most influential women, financing and gender stereotypes leave others struggling to find their own path to leadership positions, resulting in an industry that near its outset resembles many other male-dominated business sectors.
"It's not that the conversation hasn't been had," says Shaw of women's involvement in the industry. "It's just that it doesn't seem to be registering anywhere or leading to anything."
Of the 90 licensed producers listed by Health Canada, 19 are in B.C., and all of the B.C. producers have a man at the top of their corporate pyramid.
As of last summer, an analysis by the Canadian Press found that only five per cent of the board seats at publicly-traded marijuana producers were occupied by women, compared with 12 per cent on the nearly 700 TSX-listed companies.
"If you don't see a lot of women CEOs in those positions you might think they aren't that good at it. That's not the case at all," Shaw said.
Those are particularly unsettling conclusions in a city like Vancouver, which is home to several notable female leaders: activist Jodie Emery, Compassion Club co-founder Hilary Black and online cooking host Mary Jean "Watermelon" Dunsdon among others.
Shaw says many of the difficulties women confront in the fledgling sector come down to financing. "If you're trying to raise funds and you're trying to sell your company as a powerful thing and all the other companies are led by men, there's almost an instinctual response to want to give your money to [them]."
There may be reason though to draw hope from the U.S. experience, where nine states have legalized recreational marijuana and 13 more have decriminalized the same.
"The interest is really growing. Women see an opportunity for a new career or to launch a business," said Gia Morón, executive vice-president of Women Grow, a Denver-founded networking group that aims to connect and educate newcomers to the cannabis industry.
A report it commissioned found what it termed "a relatively high level of gender diversity" in upper management, and that the cannabis industry offered greater potential for American women to advance to leadership roles compared to other businesses.
How that changes if more states relax cannabis restrictions remains to be seen, and the same report found that many women still face familiar issues like low pay and limited benefits.
Morón is nonetheless optimistic. "I still believe that women will lead this industry."
Andrea Dobbs is an unlikely cannabis entrepreneur. Despite a lifelong aversion to cannabis, an interest in natural health care drew her to it to help treat symptoms of perimenopause.
The experience changed her and drawing from years of working in retail, she recognized the potential to operate a dispensary differently.
"We wanted to do something that was sustainable, that was about health and wellness and that promoted some politics."
In 2015, she and her husband opened the Village Bloomery, a dispensary that bills itself less as a place to score weed and more of a cannabis-powered alternative health service.
She advises aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs that it's important to know both the industry and why they want to get into it.
"Be authentic to your vision and what you enjoy about cannabis," she said.
"Don't try to come up with the angle, or where you think an opportunity might lie."
Dobbs is hopeful that her example, along with those of other B.C. women, will inspire others.
"At the end of the day, this is a female plant. We should honour her."