Women from the cannabis industry in the West Kootenay gathered last month to network and support each other in the business. Photo: John Boivin

‘It’s worse than the tech industry’: Facing barriers, women in cannabis meet for support

Informal networking get-together in Nelson lets women share their stories

It’s harvest time on Ellen Warner’s Slocan Valley farm.

Like many cannabis growers, she’s racing the weather to pick her crop before rain and cooler temperatures promote mould growth.

“These are amazing plants,” she says, pointing to a strange-looking variety, a scraggly purple plant that presents more like a desert shrub than the stereotypical leafy-Christmas-tree cannabis shape. “These are all high-CBD.”

Warner has been growing cannabis for her personal medicinal use for about nine years, but took the next step this year, planting a number of varieties to test how well they grow on her property.

“We did this as a demonstration garden as a proof-of-concept, as it were. If we can get a licence, we can fence this, and have a working garden,” she says. “We just want to grow quality medicine for people.”

While her operation is legal, Warner still finds herself an outlier in the industry … as a woman grower.

“The cannabis industry is very male-centric,” she says. “If you took any magazine, like High Times, you see nude girls, etc. I’m not that market. It’s the ‘bro culture’ and it doesn’t appeal to me.”

“I think women need to take over the growing of cannabis again. It’s a feminine plant, it’s a healing plant, and women care what is being put into our bodies, we have that connection that carries other lives, we look after the elderly and children, we care what goes into the bodies of people we care for.”

Women in cannabis industry

Women have been an integral part of the cannabis industry in the Kootenays as long as it’s existed.

“They were a substantial part of the workforce in the legacy industry,” says Tracey Harvey, who’s researching the transitioning from prohibition of the cannabis economy in the Kootenays for her PhD. “Some have said they comprised 80 per cent of the workforce. They fueled that industry, they were the backbone of it.”

But Harvey says there are two stories about those days.

“There’s one where people say women were held back, it was a ‘bros club,’ or had a patriarchal structure. Women aren’t prone to risk-taking because they often care for families and such. So men took that lead, and in some cases women weren’t treated that great. There were tales of disenfranchisement because it was illicit, there were no protections.

“But that’s not the only story,” she adds. “There are stories of women’s leadership, and with this organization we have an opportunity to focus on supporting women in this sector that is historically comprised such a large part of the workforce but not recognized for it.”

The organization Harvey refers to started with an informal gathering on the patio of the Prestige Inn in Nelson in early September — of women involved in growing, producing, processing and marketing cannabis.

About 13 women working in the industry — including Ellen Warner —gathered on the lakeside patio of the Prestige Inn to talk about cannabis, and connect with other local women in the business.

For two hours, they introduced themselves and chatted about their experiences.

And like Warner, the women say they are very much involved in a testosterone-fueled culture.

“I think it’s worse than the tech industry,” says Anna Bundschuh, a marketer with BC Craft Cannabis who helped organize the meeting. “There are lots of jobs in the grey market and a lot of jobs that are trimming, pruning and cleaning. But the more executive, better-paid and power positions are typically opportunities given to men. So I know women who feel excluded from those opportunities.”

There are a multitude of reasons why, says Bundschuh, pointing to the black-market nature of the business in the past, and people only trusting others they know. “I don’t think it was malicious, but now, I do see when you look at the legal market executives they are all white, older, middle-aged men for the most part. And if you look at pay scales for equal jobs, I think you’d find a big discrepancy.

“So I saw a need for women to come together and support each other.”

The dozen or so women who attended this first meeting came from a wide range of jobs in the industry — from marketers like Bundschuh to growers like Warner, and everything in between.

Sara Zacks manages a crew of workers at a medical grow operation, and says a group like this has a lot of potential to help lift women up.

“It is an industry that has been so dominated by men for so long,” she says. “And I have been to a few cannabis-focused events, and consistently the gender diversity is five to ten per cent women. So tonight was really encouraging to see.”

She says women need to stick together as the market transitions from black, or grey, to legal.

“We open doors for each other. It is a very insecure market because of all the transition. So we have to learn from each other, pull each other up, give each other a kick if we need it.”

Meet, greet and support

“I think women are really good at co-operating and looking at deeper issues and looking at things at a deeper level and finding solutions,” adds Shannon Ross, a cannabis business transition advisor for Community Futures.

“Woman are very solution-based and co-operative. I think there are challenges, trying to find equality and be recognized for what women have to offer — and there are not a lot of women growers. That is a large struggle for women.”

“This community is unique,” says Stephanie Ostrander, who works for Keystone Labs, a national firm that tests medical cannabis products and production facilities for safety.

“I think creating a community is the most important thing, so that’s what’s paramount in a situation like this. Learning about everyone’s strengths and backgrounds and to be able to just call them when you have a situation and need an expert. I think this community in the Kootenays will be so much stronger for it.”

While no firm date was set, Bundschuh says the women plan to meet again in the near future to build more connections.

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