Marijuana and Women: Will Industry Set a New Standard for Gender Equality?

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The last twenty seconds of Patricia Arquette's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ignited a national conversation about gender equality in the workplace. But many women in Colorado's pot rush are creating their own.

Cannabis industry members can't help noticing the growing presence of groups such as the Marijuana Business Association Women's Alliance, Women Grow and the NORML Women's Alliance, as well as the events they each put on around the country. As marijuana evolves into a larger and (in Colorado and quite a few other locations) legal cash crop, businesswomen have used this as an opportunity to collaborate and advise each other on how to sustain success in a unique business.

Although America has made significant strides in gender equality since the Mad Men era, there are still statistics showing plenty of room for improvement. A 2012 U.S. Census Survey found women in Colorado earn roughly 80-83 percent of the same pay as men, and a recent New York Times article reported more men by the name of "John" run S&P 1500 companies than all women combined.

However, not one of the S&P 1500 is a cannabis business, and if you ask Women Grow co-founder Jane West about the pot industry's potential for women leaders, she's bullish on the opportunities in the new world Colorado has helped create.

"There's women dispensary owners, edible company owners and lawyers — leaders in the industry on a national level all concentrated here in Denver," she says. "We want to connect them to the younger generation and show the work that's needed."

West says Women Grow has blown up on local levels throughout the country, with chapters in over twenty states since it started less than a year ago. Each chapter member must become familiar with and advocate against local prohibition laws while learning the proper steps to advance a business in the regulated pot industry.

Although founded to empower women, Women Grow has accomplished its goals much more through its cannabis advocacy and networking than via feminism. When 78 Women Grow members from fourteen states showed up in Washington D.C. to lobby for reformed marijuana taxes and financing, West and her colleagues made national news not as women, but as industry leaders who just happened to be women.

West wants to help see marijuana become the first major American industry where women hold an equal number of executive roles as men and thinks that outcome will be best for everyone.

"Diversity of opinion and thought introduces more creative solutions," she says. "Men who acknowledge that now in the cannabis industry will do nothing but profit from it."

Academics support West's position on a diversity. A recent MIT study says diverse workplaces are more productive and profitable, with one economist stating that going from an all-male or all-female office to one evenly split increased productivity around 41 percent. West says Women Grow isn't trying to eradicate men from the industry by any means (there are male members), but she believes every interest group should be able to speak with a collective voice.

"There are a lot of African-American men who worked in this industry, but they're in jail," she says. "There are a lot of minorities that should be creating their own cannabis groups."

Women Grow was created to help emerging female entrepreneurs around the country, but what about the ones who've already made it on their own right here in Denver? Considering how young the regulated pot industry is, any business owner with a few years of experience is a grizzled veteran, so where do they look for help if they're the wisest ones on the subject?

According to Jennifer Beck, each other.

Beck is the owner and founder of pot social networking site, Cannabase, and vice-chair of the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. It was through the Chamber that she helped start Women of Weed — a committee made for women already in the industry seeking the resources and community so many other lines of work have.

"At first the reaction around the table was concern — 'Why do you think you need that? Do you not feel accepted or treated well enough here?' And that's not the purpose of it at all," Beck says. "It's not focused on networking and it's not an entrepreneur class. It's a resource, not a support group, for women who are in this very challenging, isolating business where you're dealing with social stigmas and taboos."

Calling the pot industry "phenomenal" to work in as a woman, Beck says the legal marijuana trade is much more open to welcoming women into the fold than her previous line of work.

"The cannabis industry is a group that is already discriminated against, so discriminating isn't very comfortable for them," she says. "My previous background is in tech business, and that was awful. I was always underpaid and left out of important conversations."

Beck believes a mutual respect exists throughout licensed business owners in Colorado's budding economy regardless of gender. With all the risks that come with operating a business centered on a federally illegal substance, she sees a much more results-driven approach based on her experiences with Cannabase and the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

"Women bring different things to the table, a different sense of creativity," she says. "In this industry, where you don't have a framework, support from the federal government and courts, ancillary businesses helping you, access to banking or loans — that creativity can be very important."

Beck says she doesn't want to take a victim approach with Women of Weed and hopes promoting collaboration and communication among women in the retail marijuana industry will advance the industry's interests as a whole. Women of Weed's first meeting will be held March 18 to any members (male included) of the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

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