Cannabiz co-founder Martin Lane reflects on the challenge of ensuring equal representation on industry panels in a sector dominated by people like him.

It’s a really tough job organising events. I used to run a publishing company where 60% of the revenue came from conferences and our event manager compared each one to tooth extraction – you feel great afterwards, but the pain beforehand can be unbearable.

So first up, congratulations to the team at Medicinal Cannabis Industry Australia (MCIA) for the fantastic job they did putting on the ACannabis conference in Melbourne last week.

There was a really good buzz in the venue, the sessions were interesting, topical, engaging and at times spikey (in a good way). The addition of a compliance day and gala dinner meant it felt like the only place to be for medicinal cannabis professionals.

There was really just one misstep from a content point of view and that was the staging of a panel of company bosses that didn’t feature a single woman. Not even the moderator.

The all-male CEO roundtable at ACannabis prompted something of a backlash on social media (Photo: MCIA)

I understand that’s partly a reflection of the industry, which is hardly bulging with women in senior roles. But ECS Botanics MD Nan-Maree Schoerie was on another panel. Bod CEO Jo Patterson was in the audience. That’s two ASX-listed companies led by women.

Even if one of those firms is struggling at the moment, that in itself would have given a different dimension to the conversation. 

And there were plenty of other female leaders in the room – and on stage – over the two days: Medical Cannabis Australia founder Sharon Bentley, former FreshLeaf Analytics MD Cassandra Hunt, Heyday Medical MD Phoebe Macleod, MediGreen proprietors Sharon Miller and Angelica Rostov, the entourage effect CEO Lisa Varley to name just a few.

I’m aware of the irony of a white, middle-aged man quibbling about the lack of diversity on one panel in an otherwise excellent conference by the way.

But a CEO roundtable represents industry leadership, which makes it an important one to get right. In a program where representation from women was actually very strong, it felt like an unfortunate own goal which was inevitably picked up on social media.

Writing on LinkedIn, Viz Medicinal CEO Natalie D’Alessandro commented: “The chutzpah of presenting a CEO roundtable that looks like this left me pondering… is the panel a fair reflection of the decision makers across the cannabis industry globally, and/or the Australian medical space? Is diversity really that important when we are discussing cannabis for healthcare?”

Those are crucial questions for all of us to consider.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that it’s not always easy to ensure balance. Regular visitors to Cannabiz will know our Green Room video segment and monthly podcast can sometimes be all-male affairs, so we are by no means above criticism ourselves. 

And when we put our weekly newsletter together, we have to work hard to make sure there are images of women alongside all the men in suits. It shouldn’t be the case, but we do have to work at it.

In my previous role, we made a policy decision that every conference – and every panel – would have an equal gender split. Once we made that call, it became easier to find suitable women to fill speaking slots. We just had to look a bit harder.

It’s more challenging in cannabis than media and marketing if I’m honest.

For instance, we try very hard (and fail) to ensure an equal balance of men to women when putting together the judging panel for the Cannabiz Awards. This year, we have 15 women and 19 men, so we got close. 

But while that might just about give us a pass mark, I’m well aware that we fail miserably when it comes to other aspects of diversity, such as ethnicity for example.

And it’s only now occurred to me that we really should make sure our guests with disabilities have access to the podium at this year’s venue should they win an award.

Conferences such as ACannabis are made even richer by bringing different perspectives on the industry to the stage and so diversity of all kinds is essential. 

It’s true that, like many industries unfortunately, cannabis remains a male-dominated business.

But that’s far more likely to change if we make a collective decision that women deserve an equal share of the spotlight.

Prior to launching Cannabiz, Martin was co-founder and CEO of Asia-Pac’s leading B2B media and marketing information brand Mumbrella, overseeing its sale to Diversified Communications in 2017. A journalist...

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