02/14/2019 11:18 EST | Updated 02/14/2019 11:39 EST

8 Female CEOs, 92 Male CEOs: Canada's Cannabis Industry Has A Problem

“There’s a huge glass ceiling.”

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Jeannette VanderMarel, co-CEO of 48North Cannabis Corp., at her home in Ancaster, Ont. June 1, 2017.

TORONTO — Sitting at a large black table scattered with their latest cannabis products, a pink bottle of nail polish remover and a few bright succulents, 48North co-CEOs Alison Gordon and Jeannette VanderMarel know they're outliers in Canada's newest industry.

Four months after legalization, they're two of only eight women leading a company with a federal licence to cultivate, process and sell cannabis, according to data collected by HuffPost Canada.

"There's a huge glass ceiling," said VanderMarel.

"There's a kind of sisterhood of us women in leadership because there are so few of us."

Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada
Jeannette VanderMarel (left) and Alison Gordon, co-CEOs of 48North Cannabis Corp., at their downtown Toronto office.

HuffPost Canada tracked the gender diversity of leadership teams posted on cannabis company websites, in news releases and in documents supplied directly.

Of the 99 companies with public information, men headed 92.

These numbers indicate the new Canadian cannabis industry is no different from decades-old corporations when it comes to gender disparity in the top leadership spot, despite being described as an industry "without a glass ceiling," where female entrepreneurs are catching up and jumping in.

Ben Nelms/Getty Images
A salesperson displays a jar of cannabis at the Potorium dispensary in Nelson, B.C. on Nov. 7, 2018.

Among Canada's 100 largest publicly-traded corporations, six per cent had female CEOs in 2018, according to Rosenzweig and Company's annual report. Those six corporations include two headed by female and male co-CEOs. Female participation in executive positions overall was 9.44 per cent.

Cannabis companies generally appear to have more women on their advertised leadership teams, HuffPost Canada found. Of 573 executives, including officers and (depending on the company's management structure) directors and vice presidents, about 121, or 21 per cent, are women.

However, this trend doesn't apply to Canada's largest cannabis companies, based on market capitalization. On Canopy Growth's 24-person leadership team, for example, there are no female officers and three female vice presidents, according to its website.

Chris Roussakis/Getty Images
Employees work at the Canopy Growth Corp. facility in Smith Falls, Ont. on Dec. 19, 2017.

At Tilray, five women are part of the 15-person management team, and three women are on its five-person board of directors. Aphria has a single woman serving as an executive, as chief legal officer, and a single woman on its board of directors. Aurora Cannabis has one woman on its eight-person management team, in the role of chief human resource officer, according to its investor page. It has two women on its board of directors.

All four companies told HuffPost Canada that they have women in other management positions. Aphria, for example, has achieved gender parity within its corporate office. Canopy Growth listed about 20 women who are considered leaders in the company despite not being on the official "leadership team" on its investor page.

"We believe women in our space are typically more empowered than in traditional industries because there is room to take risks and an increased willingness to both listen and voice one's view," said Canopy Growth spokesperson Caitlin O'Hara. "We work tirelessly to ensure the female population across our organization feels empowered while recognizing this is a constant work in progress."

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
A monitor displays Aurora Cannabis Inc. signage on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, U.S., on Nov. 9, 2018.

Jill Swainson, Aurora's senior vice president and general counsel, said the cannabis industry is more progressive than the rest of the corporate world in terms of gender representation, cultural diversity and the LGBTQ community.

"There's no shortage of women in our company who are being promoted," said Swainson. "Eventually, the cannabis industry is going to be farther ahead, and the other industries are going to be forced to catch up."

While it's "great" women are well represented in other management positions, the cannabis industry has yet to prove it's truly breaking the mould, said Winny Shen, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in gender in the workplace. Hiring women now doesn't mean they'll be promoted to the senior level in the future.

"It's at this upper stage that it becomes important to take more risks and be innovative, and that's where you see women really underrepresented," Shen said.

Breaking through 'that old boys club'

Ben Nelms/Getty Images
A worker stocks the shelves at the Pacific Northwest Garden Supply Ltd. store in Nelson, B.C. on Nov. 8, 2018.

Industry experts estimate it takes about $5 million to $10 million to get a cannabis company up to code and federally licensed — the kind of capital that women often don't have access to.

I want to see Canada keeping ahead and not decide on some stupid, limited, small market that's bent towards one particular gender.Renee Gagnon, Hollyweed North

But executives from male-dominated industries like mining, technology and finance do, said cannabis lawyer Trina Fraser. As men from those industries migrate to cannabis, they're bringing traditional ways of thinking and doing business that largely leave women out of executive decision-making.

"We've had a lot of male bravado in this industry, a mentality of building these mega companies," Fraser said. "Women I work with have all sorts of interesting cannabis infused products, and all sorts of aspirations to bring them to market, but they've got to break through that old boys club and figure out a meaningful point of entry."

More from HuffPost Canada:

Female entrepreneurs raise significantly less funding than male entrepreneurs, facing implicit biases and less trust from venture capitalists, suggests a 2018 study We Ask Men To Win And Women Not To Lose, by Columbia and Harvard business schools. The researchers found while female entrepreneurs raised $2.3 million their male counterparts raised 7.21 times more, $16.8 million, throughout the course of the study.

Cannabis is no exception, said Renee Gagnon, CEO of Hollyweed North, a federally licensed producer based in Victoria, B.C. Gagnon, a transgender woman, has met other women across North America who have invented cannabis products, but haven't been able to raise enough money to bring them to market.

Hollyweed North/Handout
Renee Gagnon, CEO of Hollyweed North, has a mostly female executive team that focuses on bringing innovative, diverse ideas to market.

Hollyweed bridges that "chasm" by providing cannabis product research, development and licensing for entrepreneurs, with a focus on boosting diversity, Gagnon said. Only then will Canada have a globally sustainable cannabis industry that can hold its own against what Gagnon predicts will be an influx of American products.

"I want to see Canada keeping ahead and not decide on some stupid, limited, small market that's bent towards one particular gender," she said. "I'm a die hard, Darwinian capitalist. I believe a true marketplace is where consumers have choice. We're not there yet. I want to see a 1,000 flowers bloom in order for consumers to decide what is really a good idea."

The cannabis sisterhood

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
Cannabis infused cotton candy at Women Abuv Ground's CannaCool Lounge at Casa Vertigo on Feb. 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, Calif.

From the west to east coasts, women are pushing for cannabis to be different.

It took years for Christine Halef, president of AtlantiCann Medical in Halifax, N.S., to feel like she belonged in the industry.

"It was difficult for me to go to a man's world — the corporate world, the construction world — and finally feel comfortable enough in my skill and in my own drive to say OK I do belong at this table," said Halef, who now shares her experiences to inspire other women.

"Women in leadership positions should try to set examples and push and motivate young women."

AtlantiCann Medical Inc./handout
Christine Halef, President of AtlantiCann Medical Inc., runs her federally licensed cannabis company out of Halifax, N.S.

AtlantiCann has gender parity on its executive team with two men, two women. Hollyweed and 48North both have more women than men in leadership positions.

VanderMarel said it's not intentional — 48North gets a lot of qualified female applicants. She and Gordon also take their roles as mentors seriously, exposing their managers to all sides of the business and what goes on at the executive level.

"Mentorship is one thing, but sponsorship is also important, so you're accountable and invested in their success," VanderMarel said.

Watch how Alison Gordon broke through the "grass ceiling." Story continues below

When women see other women in leadership roles, they're more likely to strive for the same success, said Shen.

"If we really want to change the gender composition of leadership long term, we have to normalize women leaders so other women can imagine themselves in these roles," said Shen, noting it's not too late for the upper echelons of the cannabis industry to become more diverse.

"The cannabis industry has some latitude right now in creating its image and could be seen as one that allows for female empowerment. Once you make women in leadership roles not tokens, things change very quickly," she said.

There could also be an opening for more women leaders as demand grows for cannabis cosmetics, beverages and edibles marketed to females. Without women in leadership, cannabis companies will risk "missing new products that are attractive to women," Shen said.