Women Leaders in Cannabis: Why the Leading Companies Need Them Now

As with most every other industry, there are disparities in the cannabis sector when it comes to women leaders. There just aren’t enough women CEOs, owners, and managers. Why isn’t there more female leadership? Of all the industries you would think women would be a part of, cannabis is one. After all, it’s a modern, progressive business that’s succeeding despite years of controversy surrounding the unjustly maligned — and ironically — female plant. 

There are scores of amazing women who have been at the forefront of advocacy and research on medical marijuana. For example:

  • Moriah Barnhart, founding partner and CEO of CannaMoms.
  • Brandie Cross, Ph.D., founder and director of research at The Pot Lab.
  • Cristina Sanchez, Ph.D., and her groundbreaking work on cannabinoids as chemotherapeutic agents for cancer.

There are many more too numerous to mention, and so many more women who passionately believe in the medicinal power of cannabis. 

Yet where are the female leaders?

We’ve examined the research and pondered this question because it’s a mystery we know our cannabis clients are keen to address before the problem becomes endemic. Here’s what we discovered.

An Industry in Flux

In place of bootstrapped businesses in local communities, there are a growing number of prominent corporate players with global supply chains entering the field. Growth is good. Bigger companies expand the market and bring more resources and an infusion of cash. But it shouldn’t have to come with a compromise to the values and ideals upon which many cannabis businesses are founded.

In the early days, the cannabis sector attracted better than the average share of female leaders. But that number is declining. According to MJBizDaily’s report, “Women and Minorities in the Cannabis Industry,” 36.8% of all executive positions were held by women in 2019. In 2021, that number had dropped to 22.1%. Compare this to the 29.8% national average for all U.S. businesses in 2020, up from 21% in 2018, and the problem becomes even more evident. The cannabis industry had previously outpaced the national averages…by a lot. 

Cannabis was initially a haven for women executives who were up against impossible glass ceilings in traditional industries and seeking to broaden their professional opportunities. That doesn’t have to end. There are ways to continue to attract, develop and retain incredibly talented women leaders.

Further, there are good, research-backed reasons why cannabis businesses should want these women. 

The Research on Women in Leadership

In a 2021 study by McKinsey and Lean In, during the pandemic, women were better at providing emotional support to employees, checking in on them, and helping them navigate and balance work and life. You know, all the things that keep employees happy and productive during a difficult time. On its face, these look like positives. And they are. But they are also the characteristics we would stereotypically apply to women.

The issue is, and continues to be, the belief or the perception that women lack the skills and competencies required of a leader. And that’s simply not true. Researchers at Zenger/Folkman found in 2012 and again in 2019 that women score as well or better than men across a broad spectrum of leadership characteristics that measure effectiveness. Their conclusion? “Women make highly effective leaders.”

And to move it a step further, Goldman and Sachs reported in 2020 that the larger the percentage of women in management, the better the financial performance of companies. Researchers caution that this does not imply causality as there are other factors that may contribute. But these findings hold over a number of time periods measured and the study’s authors conclude that diversity is a good thing. 

Female Leaders of Color

How about women of color? Black women in leadership roles for any industry are rare. Although white men comprise just 35% of the U.S. population, they hold 68% of all C-suite positions. Black women, who make up 7.4% of the population, comprisee 1.4% of these high-level positions, according to a 2020 study by Lean In, “The State of Black Women in Corporate America.”

Black women face many issues that white women may not face in the workplace. So for many women of color, the cannabis industry seems a bridge too far. Given past discriminatory enforcement and the toll it took on Black and brown communities, it’s easy to see why minority women may adopt a wait-and-see attitude. According to VICE Media Group’s cannabis perception survey, only 40% of Black women believe it will be safe to produce and sell cannabis products in 2030(!), regardless of skin color. 

Just because companies put in place initiatives that welcome women aboard doesn’t mean that women of color feel welcome. It’s a matter of understanding the complexities of each group’s experience and treating people as individuals. This means that cannabis companies will need intersectional strategies to tackle the overlapping types of discrimination that may confront women of color. 

The Importance of Women Leaders for Cannabis Businesses

Historically, there has been a lot of discrimination against marijuana and its use. This includes the disproportionate arrests and incarcerations of Black and brown people. In addition, there is the stigma of permanent criminal records that continues to devastate family relationships, housing prospects and job possibilities. These relics of the war on drugs largely affect communities of color. Many people who are currently involved in the legitimate cannabis trade recognize the irony as well as the opportunities of the current situation.

Now, medical marijuana (including CBD) is legal in 48 states and attitudes are changing. Today, cannabis businesses are doing good in many communities, yet there is so much more to be done. Diversity is important in every industry. In the cannabis industry, it’s a critical responsibility to be inclusive of those who have been disenfranchised in the past. More than ever, the cannabis industry needs different perspectives and viewpoints from all directions to realize its full potential. 

Hire With Intention

It’s important to understand why the number of women in cannabis leadership is trending in the wrong direction. As with every institution and every individual, there is bias. Biases are neither good nor bad. We all have them to some extent. 

The biases that exclude people are, in many cases, not even conscious. They are built into systems. And it’s up to businesses to tackle systemic bias wherever it exists, but especially during hiring processes and in the ways in which cannabis companies support and enable career development. This means hiring with intention.

When you hire with intention, you look beyond gender and other differences that are simply not important. How can you do this? Build new processes, blind processes that focus on bringing on leaders with the skills and capabilities you value — regardless of whether they look like you, think like you, or talk like you. 

Once you bring these super capable women on board, the work doesn’t stop there. Companies that expect to retain women and promote them through the ranks must support them by helping them navigate the political environment, advocating for them, and helping them leverage the right leadership opportunities. It’s a tall order. Only a handful of companies will meet the challenge.

But it’s what it will take to prevent cannabis businesses from traveling the traditional path in a nontraditional world. Research proves that women can provide effective leadership and enhance your company’s profitability. While diversity is essential in every industry, it’s even more critical to the cannabis industry. 

If you’re looking for your next executive leader, you’ll want to hire the best. Contact Y Scouts. We can help you hire with intention.


  • Jenae Nichols is the business development and marketing specialist for Y Scouts. Learn more at httpsss://

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