Challenges Women in Construction Face in Building Their Businesses

New Opportunities Still Means Too Few for Women-Owned Businesses in Construction

Workers reading blueprints on site
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When President Obama signed the economic stimulus package into law in 2009, one of the side benefits to female entrepreneurs was increased opportunities for women-owned construction businesses. It sounds wonderful on the surface, but 'opportunities' simply means more construction jobs that women can bid on -- the same jobs male-owned businesses can also bid on.

If you guessed that male-owned/run businesses still get the lion's share of all federal government contracts you'd guess correctly.

  It is not due to a lack of women-owned businesses (WOBs) in construction, in fact, the number of heavy construction companies owned by women is steadily on the rise.

In 1994 Congress passed legislation that requires the federal government to award a minimum of 5% of all government-wide contracts to certified women-owned businesses.  As of 2015 - more than 20 years after the mandate, that 5% has never been met even once.

Even with existing guidelines, contract fulfillment quotas for WOBs, and anti-discrimination laws, the  Federal government still fails to target or award many qualified women-owned businesses (WOBs) with any government contracts in hundreds of industries, but local governments often encourage women construction business owners to bid on contracts.

    Penny Pompei, executive director of Women Construction Owners and Executives, a national organization, said work still needs to be done to level the playing field.  In a 2012 interview by Lee Fehrenbacher (DJC Oregon), "Women-Owned Construction Firms on the Rise Despite Public Perception," shared reasons why she thinks WOB construction companies still face major challenges:

    “I think the biggest problem is public perception,” she said.

    Pompei said that people often think of women-owned construction companies as small painting or landscaping contractors.

    “If you tell them that women-owned construction companies build bridges and airports and high-rise buildings, and we have manufacturing companies that make the curtain wall systems that are used in high-rises … that’s where the surprise is,” she said. “It’s the perception that women don’t own major companies, when the reality is we have our fingers in everything.”

    Local Governments Encourage WOBs in the Construction Industry

    Local governments (state, county, city) are more concerned with discrimination lawsuits than the federal government and often have initiatives that require a certain percentage of construction work be awarded to women business owners or subcontracted through WOBs.

    These initiatives may even require officials to solicit bids from women entrepreneurs actively. But to qualify, your business needs to be certified as a women-owned business enterprise, and in most cases, appear in the Central Contractor Registry.

    • What is the Central Contractor Registry? The Small Business Administration (SBA) maintains a database called the Central Contractor Registry (CCR). The CCR is a massive listing of companies that wish to do business with the U.S. Federal Government.

      Any company or organization that wishes to do business with the U.S. Federal Government must first be registered in the CCR.

    • What is Small Business Certification? Certification of a small business is a review process that gives formal acknowledgment that the business is owned and operated by a qualifying person, which is under-represented in an industry. Not all businesses can receive certification.
    • Self-Certification of Women-Owned Businesses: Federal law permits first-time women bidders on government contracts to “self-certify” if they meet certain conditions of being a women-owned business.

      However, this self-certification can be challenged upon procurement award. If this happens, the procuring agency may request proof of the firms’ WOB status, or even require certification. If you fail to comply, you could lose the award.

    Resources and Support for Women-Owned Construction Businesses

    Here are three organizations specifically of interest to women entrepreneurs in the construction business:

    • National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC): This organization lists networking, apprenticeships, allows members to post job resumes, and offers a variety of scholarships and educational opportunities to women in the construction industry.
    • Women Contractors Association (WCA): This organization offers monthly networking events, and a variety of opportunities and resources for women business owners and executives to learn more about growing their construction industry-related businesses.
    • Women Construction Owners and Executives, USA (WCOE): This organization supports and advocates for women business owners in the construction industry. Twice when I visited their website, they were having technical troubles (other times the site worked fine). To reach WCOE by phone, call 1-800-788-3548.