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Shocker: Feds Actually Help Women-Owned Businesses!

For once, women-owned businesses got their full slice of the federal contracting pie: they really did get the 5 percent of stimulus contracts awarded so far, just like they were supposed to. Now, let's see if the Feds can repeat this startling success and expand it to all contracts, not just those driven by stimulus spending.

Why is a measly 5 percent so startling? Because, year after year, Federal agencies have been expected to channel at least 5 percent of their contracts to womens' business enterprises (WBEs), and year after year, WBEs got no more than 3.4 percent, according to Ann Sullivan, president of Washington advocacy and lobbying firm Madison Services Group. Typically, big contractors and government agencies pay lip service to hiring women-owned businesses, then somehow forget all about them when handing out the work. When it's time to tally up who got what, it always turned out that few WBEs were cut in.

Good intentions don't much matter if they aren't reflected in daily decisions. The execution of the 2009 stimulus bill proved that all it takes to hit that 5 percent is -- wait for it -- paying attention.

Could it really be that simple?

Yes, says Sullivan. Consistent with its overall advocacy for equal pay and workplace equity, the Obama administration required weekly reports from the agencies that got to hand out boatloads of stimulus funds. Every agency had a staffer specifically in charge of making sure that women got their share. This deflated the chronic, self-defeating dynamic of ignoring WBEs when lining up prime and subcontractors, then claiming at the last minute that no WBEs were to be found.

"It was much more organized than anything I have ever seen," says Sullivan, who, as a lobbyist, has seen quite a bit.

Construction-related stimulus money is still being disbursed, which means that it's possible that federal agencies will again achieve that elusive 5 percent.

Three changes are in the works that should make this mirage materialize:

  1. The Small Business Administration is determined to apply what it learned to all federal contract decisionmaking, reports Joe Jordan, the Small Business Adminstration's associate administrator for Government Contracting and Business Development. (Joe, you must get winded introducing yourself!) Hitting that 5 percent was a "consciousness-raising" moment for contracting officers throughout the government, says Jordan, who vows, "We intend to carry that and other best practices forward." Good idea, says Sullivan. "There is no reason why they should not apply these best practices to the rest of the government," she comments.
  2. Pending legislation will update the requirements and clean up inconsistencies in how big WBEs can get before they 'top out' of the system. Keep an eye on the "Fairness in Women-Owned Small Business Contracting Act of 2010" bill.
  3. Meanwhile, it's actually getting a bit easier for women business owners to compete for those contracts on their own terms. The recession has thinned the ranks of construction companies, which means that women business owners are seen and heard more readily, says Marsha Bomar, president of Atlanta-area planning firm Street Smarts.
And -- maybe thanks to the fact that the Feds are finally paying attention -- big contractors are realizing that women-owned firms can be strategic partners, not afterthoughts. Companies -- woman-owned or not -- that have weathered the shakeout have gained visibility simply because they're still around and former competitors are not. As Bomar says, "We are an attractive business partner because we are here to stay."

Image courtesy Flickr user Beverly & Pack, CC 2.0

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