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Breaking the Grass Ceiling: Why Female Leadership is Vital in the Cannabis Industry

Updated: May 4

The cannabis industry, once an underground market, has burgeoned into one of the most rapidly evolving sectors worldwide. As it sheds the shackles of past stereotypes and steps into mainstream business consciousness, the importance of diversity in its leadership, particularly female leadership, cannot be overstated. Women bring a unique set of experiences, perspectives, and innate strengths that can aid in navigating the intricacies and challenges this nascent industry presents. Yet, despite the enormous potential and a few success stories, there remains a significant gender leadership gap in the cannabis sector. This article delves into the crucial role of female leadership in the cannabis world, its transformative potential, and the journey ahead to bridge the existing disparities.

The Grass Ceiling

What is the "grass ceiling"? Much like the term "glass ceiling" which refers to the unseen barrier that keeps women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements. While some progress has been made, women, especially women of color, still face significant challenges in breaking this ceiling.

"Grass ceiling" represents the same issue but in the cannabis industry which frequently likes to tout itself as more progressive when it comes to female leadership. Here's the thing. How many women are in positions of decision making and executive power in the cannabis space? That's where the ceiling can be seen. There may be women in the upper echelons of the cannabis space, all the way up to Director level, or maybe even Vice President level in some cases. But, step into the board rooms of the most powerful and influential cannabis companies and you'll see few women in most of those rooms, if any at all.

Defining The Goal

The discourse surrounding diversity, inclusion, and female leadership often sparks a gamut of emotions and misunderstandings. A common misconception is that advocating for these elements is akin to advocating for the usurpation of the prevailing white male-dominated leadership structure. This misinterpretation couldn't be further from the truth. The essence of "diversity" and "inclusion" is not about overpowering or displacing, but rather about harmonizing and augmenting.

The ethos behind championing diversity is to foster an environment where varied perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds coalesce to enrich decision-making and innovation. In this context, it's about recognizing that a white male executive, with his unique experiences and insights, has just as much value as his female, younger, or ethnically diverse counterpart. What diversity and inclusion promote is not the diminishment of one for the upliftment of another but the idea that when different backgrounds and experiences come together, the resultant synergy can be remarkably powerful.

What diversity and inclusion promote is not the diminishment of one for the upliftment of another but the idea that when different backgrounds and experiences come together, the resultant synergy can be remarkably powerful.

In the rapidly evolving world of the cannabis industry, this balanced leadership is not just a progressive ideal; it's a business must-have. Diverse leadership teams often outperform their homogeneous counterparts in innovation, risk assessment, and market understanding. By striving for a balanced summit in the cannabis industry, where varied leaders coexist, the aim is to harness the collective strengths of diverse individuals. It’s about equipping the industry with a robust, multifaceted toolkit that allows it to navigate the complexities of the market with agility, insight, and foresight.

So, the narrative isn't about supplanting the status quo but about enriching it. It's not about reducing the seats at the table but about adding more chairs, ensuring that the conversation is as comprehensive, enlightening, and forward-thinking as possible.

Female Cannabis Exec Representation

The cannabis industry, once celebrated for its strides in gender diversity, is grappling with a regressing trend. Historically, many sectors, including cannabis, were predominantly male-driven. Women in the field confronted multifaceted challenges: from ingrained societal biases and uneven networking opportunities to limited access to influential roles. The dynamics, however, seemed promising for a time. In 2015, Marijuana Business Daily highlighted that a commendable 36% of executive roles in the cannabis industry were helmed by women. This figure not only trumped many other industries but also suggested a positive trajectory for the future.

Yet, a disheartening revelation came in the “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Cannabis Industry” report of 2022. The data underscored that the percentage of women in executive positions in the cannabis arena had witnessed a decline. It stood at a modest 23.1% - a significant drop from the 36.8% reported in 2019. This decline is especially poignant when compared with national averages across industries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021 highlighted that women constituted 29.1% of chief executive roles in mainstream enterprises.

So, what happened in the cannabis industry? The stark reduction in female representation at the executive echelon from 36% to 23.1% between 2015 and 2022, as documented by MJBizDaily's report, is not just alarming for the sector but poses larger questions about inclusivity trends. These figures serve as a poignant reminder: industries must be vigilant in their commitment to diversity, ensuring that initial strides towards inclusion translate into sustainable, long-term progress.

Bringing a Unique Perspective

The rising prominence of women in leadership roles across industries has consistently shown the value of diversity in decision-making. Women inherently offer a distinctive world view, sculpted by their unique experiences, priorities, and values. These differences in perspective can be especially transformative in sectors like cannabis, where pervasive stigma and myriad misconceptions have often skewed perceptions.

Studies have consistently highlighted the advantages of gender-diverse leadership. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, companies with more women in decision-making roles are 21% more likely to outperform their counterparts in terms of profitability. This is not merely a testament to their competence but an indication of the innovative strategies and approaches women bring to the table.

In the context of the cannabis industry, female leaders can pivot discussions on legalization, regulation, and, crucially, social justice, grounding them in inclusivity and responsibility. Their insights can shape industry strategies to ensure they are equitable, safe, and cater to the larger societal good.

According to a 2018 report by McKinsey & Company, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.

Cannabis Leading The Way

At Cann Strategy, we've always held a visionary perspective on the cannabis sector. As an industry still laying down its foundational bricks, the cannabis realm presents an unparalleled opportunity to rewrite the traditional business playbook. Rather than following the well-trodden path of older industries, cannabis can pioneer a new trajectory – one underlined by inclusivity, impeccable product quality controls, robust consumer protections, and exemplary treatment of its workforce.

Central to this vision is the pressing need to push boundaries on female executive leadership. Beyond being an egalitarian endeavor, boosting the number of women in top-tier roles in the cannabis industry is a strategic imperative. And this isn't just a morally-grounded assertion. Data from respected institutions underscores this point. A pivotal 2015 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics made a compelling case for female leaders in the corporate echelons. Companies fortified by women in C-suite roles exhibited a markedly heightened resilience during financial downturns. The study suggested that the often conservative, future-focused financial strategies of female leaders could be the linchpin in this resilience.

Companies fortified by women in C-suite roles exhibited a markedly heightened resilience during financial downturns.

Such a long-term, measured approach to financial decision-making isn't just a 'nice-to-have' in the cannabis industry—it's critical. The sector, characterized by its financial flux, turbulent market conditions, and onerous taxation, would significantly benefit from leadership that steadies the ship during storms. Given these pressures, it becomes evident that elevating women to executive roles isn't just about equal representation; it's about equipping cannabis businesses with the tools, perspectives, and strategies to thrive in an unpredictable market landscape.

So, as we look to the horizon and envisage the future of the cannabis industry, let it be one that doesn't just match but sets new benchmarks for other sectors to aspire to.

Customers Relatability

The cannabis industry, once marred by stereotypes and stigmas, is experiencing an evolution as more states and nations move toward legalization. A significant aspect of this evolution is the marked rise in female consumers, an oft-underrated demographic. According to Flowhub, a renowned cannabis tech company, the span between early 2020 to late 2021 saw a whopping 55% increase in cannabis sales to female customers. It's notable that in 2021, almost half of the new customers were women — a jump of 10% from just three years earlier in 2018.

Given that women make up about half of the global population, businesses led by a balanced leadership team that includes women can better reflect and serve the global customer base.

This trend seems to affirm the growing sentiment that "the future of cannabis is female." The demographic shift isn't just among older generations; it's most profound with Gen Z. As this generation veers away from alcohol and embraces cannabis, the industry has taken note. Women from Gen Z, those born in 1997 or later, have emerged as a powerhouse cohort. Data from Headset, a leading cannabis analytics company, reveals a staggering 151% growth in year-over-year sales for Gen Z women in 2020, outpacing any other group.

Given these transformative shifts, it becomes imperative to acknowledge and act on the increasing need for female leadership within the cannabis industry. Women, with their unique insights and experiences, can potentially connect more instinctively with the burgeoning female consumer base. Their nuanced understanding of the female consumer psyche could offer invaluable advantages over traditional, data-driven male executive approaches. As the cannabis industry grows and evolves, having female leaders at the helm could very well be the key to tapping into the vast potential of the female market.

Encouraging Future Generations

The dynamics of the modern business world are shifting, and the cannabis industry stands at an exciting crossroads. One of the most profound advantages of encouraging female leadership in this sector is the beacon of inspiration it casts for upcoming generations of women. When young girls and women observe their counterparts breaking glass ceilings, occupying boardrooms, and making pivotal decisions in the cannabis space, they are offered a vision of what is possible. They see a path paved for them and are more likely to be emboldened to chase their ambitions and shatter any limiting paradigms.

The implications of this extend far beyond the cannabis industry. A world with more women in influential roles yields a cascade of benefits across multiple spheres. Historical and current data point to the fact that female-led environments often correlate with accelerated economic progress, improved public health outcomes, and an enhanced focus on social equity. Thus, promoting women's leadership within the cannabis sector could contribute significantly to these broader societal enhancements.

However, the journey for women toward leadership is laden with unique challenges. From systemic biases and entrenched gender roles to the absence of mentorship and the sheer scarcity of female role models in authoritative roles, women often have to navigate a more convoluted pathway to the top. But this is precisely where representation becomes paramount. The more women we see at the helm of cannabis businesses, the more normalized this vision becomes.

It's not just about breaking barriers; it's about ensuring those barriers remain broken for future generations. As women occupy more C-suite offices and board seats, they don't just create a legacy of success; they pave the way for future female leaders, ensuring that the ladder they climbed remains steady and inviting for those who come after them.


As the cannabis industry continues its unprecedented ascent, the call for diverse and female leadership is not just a social justice mantra, but a strategic imperative. Women, with their unique perspectives and expertise, have the power to elevate the industry, ensuring it flourishes in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, and revolutionary. While strides have been made, the landscape still reveals disparities that need bridging. The task at hand is not to overshadow or sideline but to harmonize—melding varied experiences and wisdom for the collective good. The future of cannabis, if it truly aspires to be global and groundbreaking, must be one where women not only find a seat at the table but are integral voices shaping its narrative and trajectory.

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