SBA Revises Part of Women Procurement Plan

The Small Business Administration may be holding out an olive branch to critics of its plan to reduce the number of women-owned businesses eligible for contract assistance from the federal government. But it may not be enough.

The agency on Friday submitted to the Federal Register a proposed rule (pdf) that would potentially expand the types of women-owned small businesses that would be eligible for federal contract assistance from four to 31 categories.

It also submitted a final rule concerning women-owned small business contracting procedures that it said is similar to its plan issued Dec. 27, 2007.

The proposed rule offers another 30 days for public comment on a new data set that would allow the approved industries to be expanded to 31.

The agency went through a complicated research process last year and upon the advice from a RAND Corp. study ultimately whittled down the thousands of women businesses that could be eligible for federal contracting dollars to four categories. The recommendation was met with caterwauls of protest from many women's advocacy groups and the business community.

There are 10.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States employing 19.1 million people and contributing $2.46 trillion to the economy, according to the SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership. Congress established the women's procurement program in 2000 to help address the under-representation of women entrepreneurs in the government marketplace. There is also a law that says women-owned small businesses should take home 5 percent of government contracts, but that goal has never been achieved.

Women Impacting Public Policy President and CEO Barbara Kasoff had not reviewed the rules' full language yet, but said her initial reaction was that "it doesn't seem to be enough."

She favors a proposal offered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- the top members of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee -- that would make all industries eligible for contracting assistance, not just the suggested four or 31.

Additionally, the final rule includes language of concern to lawmakers and others requiring federal agencies to admit gender discrimination in certain contracting fields in order to award certain contracts to women-owned businesses. It says: "Although requiring contracting agencies to identify evidence of discrimination in relevant contracting spheres would no doubt impose some burden, this allocation is less costly and burdensome than having SBA try to make discrimination findings based upon private sector or agency procurement data to which the agency does not have access."

Critics, including all female U.S. senators, say it's unlikely that an agency would admit to such discrimination.

By Sharon McLoone |  September 29, 2008; 3:31 PM ET Gov't Contracting
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