Updated March 26 at 12:25pm

Women lose more ground in U.S. small business contracts race


WASHINGTON - U.S. government contracts to women- owned small businesses dropped for the second consecutive year, declining at a faster rate than awards to their male counterparts.

The women’s contracts slid 5.5 percent to about $16.4 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 from $17.3 billion in fiscal 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Awards to small firms owned by men fell 4.1 percent to $80.9 billion.

The gender gap may reflect stiffer competition over a shrinking pool of contract revenue as well as the bureaucratic burdens associated with a new effort to reserve awards for women-owned firms, according to former procurement officials and small business advocates.

“Women-owned small businesses are at the very bottom of the food chain,” said Jeanne Peck, CEO of Nash Locke LLC, an information technology company based in McLean, Virginia. “They often have to fight for the scraps of subcontracts.”

It may get worse for women, as they face difficulty winning a greater share of business in an era of federal spending cuts, said Robert Burton, acting administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy under George W. Bush.

“I don’t think you’re going to see any of these figures rise,” Burton, now a partner at the law firm Venable LLP in Washington, said in a phone interview. “Historically, the government has never put a strong emphasis on women-owned small businesses.”

Missed target

The government set a goal in 1994 of awarding at least 5 percent of the total value of eligible contracts to woman-owned businesses. It never has met that target. Women captured about 3.2 percent of the total, according to federal procurement data. The Small Business Administration hasn’t released official numbers using its own methodology, which excludes some contracts.

The gender disparity is particularly striking because the U.S. is in its second year of a new program aimed at boosting awards to women-owned small businesses, said Ann Sullivan, head of government relations for Women Impacting Public Policy Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes women in business.

The effort, which allows agencies to reserve money for women-owned businesses, started in April 2011, 11 years after Congress ordered the SBA to create the program.

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