Grass ceiling: Arkansas women fight employment trends in cannabis industry

It’s hard out there for women in weed. 

Just ask Annie Iselin, senior director of operations at BOLD Team in Cotton Plant, or Danielle Buntyon, a former oil and gas industry employee who started her own hemp and cannabis companies in Tennessee and Arkansas. 

Iselin relocated to Arkansas after some work experiences in cannabis-rich Colorado that did not meet her expectations. She uprooted her life to land in the rural Arkansas Delta with a cultivator that she says values her as a woman. 

“I’m not into glass ceilings,” she said. “I like to break them open and be able to create a lane that I see for myself.” 

Limited data

It’s hard to find a lot of data on cannabis employment, but the data that exists shows women lagging behind men. MJBizDaily, a national cannabis online publication, has provided a helpful resource with its nearly annual anonymous survey of industry professionals. The results of the survey show women are less represented than men in the cannabis industry and are greatly outnumbered in executive roles. 

In 2022, the survey found an estimated 40%-42% of industry employees were women and showed female employees lagging behind men in staff-level jobs and even further behind men in executive roles. 

The survey reported that women accounted for just 23% of cannabis executives, a figure that has fallen from a high of 36.8% in the 2019 survey. The survey also found that women account for 22.2% of cannabis business ownership nationwide, although that was a slight rise from 19.9% the year before. 

“As you can see from the data in the report, it is a male-dominated industry,” said Pam Moore, the chief content officer at MJBizDaily. “I think many industries are. I think that cannabis, especially the processing and cultivation side of the business, tends to be especially male-dominated.” 

MALE-DOMINATED: Pam Moore of MJBizDaily said the data from her company’s survey shows cannabis is a male-dominated industry. (Photo courtesy of Pam Moore)

In nearly every sector of the industry — from cultivation to retail to ancillary businesses — women are less represented than men, according to the survey. In cultivation, females make up 44% of the staff and 38% of the executives. In retail settings like dispensaries, women make up 47% of the staff and just 19% of the executives. 

“There’s a lot of just flat-out sexism in the industry, as there is in the world,” Moore said. “Cannabis isn’t any different than anywhere else, but its casual and entrepreneurial nature, I think, makes it easier for those things to come out.” 

Nonprofits, media and government/lobbying had the highest percentages of women, the survey found, with women in the majority in some instances. 

Moore said a lot of women have been helped by cannabis products as consumers, then become advocates and want to get into the industry but find roadblocks. 

“I think, as in so many industries, the challenge then becomes getting to that higher level of the industry, just given the unconscious bias that exists,” Moore said. 

Chanda Macias runs the nonprofit Women Grow, which helps women working in the cannabis industry. Macias, who also owns several cannabis businesses, said the number of women in the industry has fallen since she entered the business in 2012. 

WOMEN GROW: Chanda Macias runs a nonprofit organization that helps women in the cannabis industry. (Photo courtesy of Chanda Macias)

While the numbers show less female representation in cannabis staff and executive jobs, it’s also tough for women entrepreneurs because it’s difficult for them to get funding for their businesses. Without access to traditional loans, cannabis businesses must seek private loans to fund their business plans and most of private equity is run by white men, Macias said. 

“It’s not necessarily their ability to run their business, it really comes down to the capital contributions and how much money they’re able to raise in order to get their businesses off the ground,” Macias said. “That has been the number one challenge for women in cannabis and women, period, in the entrepreneurial space.”

Arkansas data

While national data on the topic is hard to come by, there is some employment data on the industry in Arkansas where employees are required to get approval from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to work in the industry. Scott Hardin, spokesman for the ABC, recently reviewed the employment data and found the state has about 2,900 people working in the industry, including about 1,700 males and 1,200 females. 

That’s about 58.62% males and 41.37% females working in the industry, figures that are pretty close to what MJBizDaily found in its 2021 survey. 

Another data point available in Arkansas shows that while men make up most of the employees in the industry, the majority of cardholders in the state medical marijuana program are females. 

The Arkansas Department of Health’s medical marijuana report for the 2022 fiscal year shows that 53% of cardholders are female and 46.7% are male. The report said the gender of the remaining 0.3% of cardholders was unknown. 

Moore said the prevalence of women consumers of medical marijuana fits with other trends in the medical industry. 

“We see the same thing in most medical spaces,” Moore said. “Given the way we understand gender in America, women tend to be the people who run health care for their families as well as for themselves.” 

Arkansas women in weed 

In Arkansas, some women have found a home in the cannabis industry with some even obtaining leadership roles and business ownership. 

WOMEN IN CANNABIS: Annie Iselin (front), senior director of operations at BOLD Team Cultivation in Cotton Plant, left a career in Denver for a job in the Arkansas Delta where she said she feels valued as a woman. Women make up 53% of her staff. (Photo by Ebony Blevins)

Iselin, the senior director of operations at BOLD, has extensive experience in the cannabis industry, including working for two male owners in the Colorado cannabis market. Iselin found a bit of sexism in that role and believed it was holding her back.

She moved on to another cannabis business that she said valued her more, but it still wasn’t perfect. 

“When I scaled up to a different facility, I was more empowered than I had ever been before by that CEO,” she said. “But even then you kind of hit a glass ceiling, and I experienced that there as well.” 

When Iselin moved on to cannabis consulting, she proved her worth by writing two of the five initial winning applications for cannabis cultivators in Arkansas – BOLD Team and Osage Creek Cultivation.

Iselin went on to find a home in BOLD, a business that she says values her and other women. Iselin uprooted her life in Denver to take a job in Cotton Plant, a town of about 500 people in the rural Arkansas Delta. The change helped Iselin become the working woman she wanted to be. 

“I think coming to BOLD allowed me to realize that I could be a fierce, direct woman and be successful in my lane without feeling as though I didn’t have a seat at the table,” she said. 

Iselin’s executive role at BOLD hasn’t made her complacent about the issue of promoting women in the cannabis workplace. Iselin said 53% of BOLD’s 101 employees are women, a figure surpassing the 44% MJBizdaily found working in cannabis cultivation in its survey. Many of the women at BOLD are working in management positions, Iselin said. 

“I absolutely will wrap my arms and embrace younger women that want bigger and better for themselves, and I hope to guide them,” she said. 

Buntyon is another woman building a career in the Arkansas weed industry as the owner of a processing business in Marion called Mink and Kimball Extracts. The business is named after the streets where she grew up in nearby Memphis. 

Before Buntyon found her way into the cannabis world, she worked in the oil and gas industry in Houston where her boss shared her interest in the burgeoning cannabis and hemp industries. Buntyon’s boss and family supported her move back to her native Tennessee to work with hemp. Since that time, Buntyon has become an expert in the field, advancing her education with a certificate in agriculture from Tennessee State University, receiving grants and teaching others. 

Buntyon has moved her cannabis expertise west across the river to Marion where medical marijuana is legal and she can create THC products. Tennessee has not legalized marijuana. 

Buntyon has purchased flower from Arkansas cultivators and turned that into products that quickly sold out at Body and Mind dispensary in West Memphis. She plans to create more products and reach more dispensaries. 

As the “owner-operator-multitasker” of her business, Buntyon said she gets to interact with people at all levels and has found it to be a “very male-dominated industry” with more women in retail and fewer in decision-making roles. 

“I do see a lot of women, more on the store management, retail side, but when you get into the tables, the meetings, the big decisions, a lot of times it’s led by men,” she said. 

But she says there’s an important parallel between cannabis plants and the world. 

“The one good thing I can always say is the major properties of a cannabis plant are supported in the female part of it,” she said. “You can’t have cannabis without the females. You can’t have the world without females.”

Like Buntyon, Iselin moved to Arkansas from another state to pursue her cannabis dreams and support women along the way. Iselin said she doesn’t regret her decision to leave Denver for rural Arkansas and has found a place that values her as an “outgoing, outspoken human being.” Iselin said she leans on other women in the industry, like BOLD owner Misty Drennan and Spring River Dispensary owner Renee Clay-Circle, for advice. 

“Women can do whatever we want if we put our minds to it,” she said.    

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