Government contracts: Why so long to crack the glass ceiling

This week, the commerce department announced it had met its goal of awarding five percent of federal contract dollar to women-owned companies. Michele Williams, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Industrial and Labor Relations School explains why progress to achieve this laudable but modest goal has been this slow and says research shows setting aside contracts for only women-owned businesses is a way to even the odds.


Williams says:

“Entrepreneurship has been touted as the great equalizer for women, but despite ongoing efforts by the U.S. government, it took over 20 years to meet its laudable but modest goal of awarding five percent of the money it spends on contractors to businesses owned by women.”

“Why so slow? It’s not a simple matter of a limited pipeline, lack of information about government contracts or blatant discrimination – all of which the government has been trying to directly address for years. The problem is often more subtle.

“First, when selecting a contractor, similarity to your other contractors and similarity to the prototypic contractor in that industry make it easier to assess their qualification and feel confident in those assessments. In the case of government contracts, male-owned businesses ‘fit’ these expectations better than women-owned businesses.

“Secondly, networks – which confer trust and goodwill as well as information – may matter even more than information gained from training sessions and pamphlets. In other words, knowing and interacting with others who have received contracts, knowing those who are responsible for deciding on contracts and having role models can all influence the likelihood of a woman-owned business applying for and receiving a government contract.

“Although setting aside some funds for contracts to be awarded only to women-owned businesses may seem unfair, studies in politics have found that such policies over time not only increase women’s proportional representation but also their legitimacy – increasing the degree that both men and women are seen to ‘fit’ these new roles and expected to succeed in them.”

Rebecca Valli
O: 607-255-7701
M: 607-793-1025

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