Women in weed: Industry insiders decry gender imbalance in corporate cannabis


Since co-founding the Green Organic Dutchman, a medical cannabis producer based in Ancaster, Ont., Jeannette VanderMarel says she has often found herself the only woman in a room full of men.

“There seems to be, at times, a bit of condescension,” says VanderMarel, a former nurse who delved into the medical marijuana sector after losing her daughter in 2003 to Dravet syndrome, or uncontrollable seizure disorder.

Her experience as a woman in the young, fast-growing industry is not uncommon.

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Women are under-represented in the boardrooms of corporate Canada, holding just 12 per cent of board seats at 677 TSX-listed companies analyzed by provincial regulators last year. But the disparity is larger in the medical marijuana business.

Only five per cent of the board seats at publicly traded marijuana producers are currently occupied by women, according to an analysis of data conducted by The Canadian Press.

Both advocates and industry executives say the dearth of women on boards is among the growing pains that corporate cannabis will have to tackle as it matures from an emerging industry to an established one.

Some blame the gender gap on the fact that many directors and executives in the marijuana business world come from traditionally male-dominated industries such as venture capital, investment banking and mining.

“In the startup and finance sectors you’ve got this bro vibe going on,” says Lisa Campbell, the co-founder of Elle Collective, a business incubator for women in the marijuana industry.

“We find that it is kind of an old boys’ club in a way, even though it’s a very new industry.”

Scrutiny of the sector is expected to rise as publicly traded pot companies graduate from smaller exchanges to the main Toronto Stock Exchange, a trend that could accelerate once the federal government follows through on its promise to legalize recreational marijuana.

“When you move up to the big board you now have to be a little more understanding of society, of what is correct,” says Vic Neufeld, the CEO of Aphria (TSX:APH), a producer that made the move to the TSX earlier this year.

But marijuana industry leaders say there are several challenges when it comes to finding women to sit on the boards. They include finding candidates with the specific skills and experience to meaningfully contribute to a company’s growth.

“They have to bring something to the table,” says Neufeld. “It’s not just to be politically correct.”

Aphria has one woman – Arlene Dickinson, a Canadian entrepreneur and venture capitalist featured on the television show “Dragons’ Den” – on its board of seven. Neufeld said Dickinson was chosen because of her expertise in marketing.

Another challenge cited is that the pool of candidates can be limited by the stigma surrounding the industry.

“At the beginning of this, a lot of proper people who had really good resumes, male or female, wanted very little to do with the sector,” said Bruce Linton, CEO of Canopy Growth Corp. (TSX:WEED).

“Reefer madness has had an enduring effect.”

All five of Canopy’s directors are men, although Linton said he’s been on the lookout for a female director. Ideally he would like her to be an American with experience in the packaged goods industry.

Irie Selkirk, medical outreach and education lead for Emblem Cannabis, said the lack of women in boardrooms is disappointing given that they are often at the front lines of patient care and have played a prominent role in advocating for the drug’s legitimacy.

Selkirk cited prominent cannabis activist Jodie Emery, B.C. Compassion Club Society founder Hilary Black and patient advocate Tracy Curley as some of the women who have been at the forefront of the movement to legitimize medical marijuana.

“A lot of the key cannabis players are women,” Selkirk said. “It’s really important to me that we recognize the women that have brought us to this point right now and create more space for other women to join.”

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