Chem Tales: Cannabis Needs Women in Power

A report reveals that the industry is hiring women — but not as leaders.

As the founder of a cannabis recruiting platform, Karson Humiston is used to the presence of pot in her daily life. For starters, cannabis is the common ground she shares with her clients and investors as the CEO of Vangst. It’s also a ubiquitous presence in the news, the target of obscenely large investments from major corporate interests, and possibly one of the most medically significant plants in the world.

It is, simply put, a topic that no longer qualifies as taboo — at least, not here in California.

Recently, Humiston was attending a wedding in Upstate New York when she realized she might be living in a bubble. She was chatting with some guests — many of them friends from college — when the subject of their professional lives arose. She recalls how flabbergasted her friends became when she told them what she did for a living, and how the cannabis industry currently employs nearly 300,000 people across the U.S.

“My friends were calling them ‘pickers,’ ” she laughs. “Like they thought they were all marijuana pickers. I had to try and explain to them that, within cultivation alone, there are horticulturalists and botanists and trimmers and everything else.”

This was a prudent reminder that the reality of legalized cannabis has yet to truly sink in across many pockets of the country.

Here in California, it can be easy to forget that other regions of the U.S. still imagine the industry to be populated solely by small farmers. Some would undoubtedly prefer those days, but the truth is that cannabis is currently one of the strongest creators of new jobs in the U.S. Legalization has also provided the opportunity for those in power to redefine hiring to correct profound inequalities in workforce hierarchies.

It also means the recent release of an industry report from Vangst is well-timed. Focused on statistics regarding the employment of women in the cannabis industry, Vangst’s findings arrive at a prescient moment. The market is poised to explode should federal prohibition be lifted, but once that happens, it’s fair to question where diversity will rank as a priority for the billionaires sprinting in to grab a piece of the medicated pie.

Until then, however, there may still be time to shape the larger ethos of cannabis when it comes to best hiring practices and a more diverse workforce. According to Vangst, the industry has already made some notable strides.

In a survey of 166 cannabis businesses located in 17 states, Vangst found that 38.5 percent of employees identified as female. In contrast, the technology industry sits at a paltry 20 percent, while women account for nearly 70 percent of the education sector. Still, 38.5 percent is a decent start. The real problem has to do with the number of women in director and executive positions. Only 17.6 percent of all female-identifying cannabis employees surveyed said they held a role at that level.

“It’s a very small number,” Humiston notes. These companies “may be doing a good job at hiring women for mid-level and entry positions, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of diversity at the top.”

It should be noted that while Vangst’s report focuses exclusively on individuals who identify as female in the cannabis workforce, similar — if not far worse — numbers should be expected when it comes to persons of color in leadership positions. A report focused on that subject would be of great value as well, but in the interim, the research compiled by Vangst allows for a better understanding of what’s happening within one facet of the workforce.

Humiston hopes this data reminds those in power that there’s room for improvement.

“If there’s no diversity at the top,” she says, “it’s going to be hard to have diversity throughout the rest of the organization.”

By placing more women in leadership roles, Humiston suggests, the cannabis industry can communicate its commitment to equality at all levels. Redefining normal has long been a rallying cry of the legalization movement. Why not extend that ideology to demand a new normal when it comes to hiring practices and diversity at all levels of a company?

“If every cannabis company pulls together,” Humiston says, “we have a chance to build one of the most inclusive industries in the world. In order to do that though, companies will have to prioritize diversity from Day One. They can’t just talk about it. They have to do it.”

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