Women entrepreneurs, with full or partial ownership of more than a third of global businesses, win just 1 percent of government contracts, according to Patricia Francis, executive director of the International Trade Centre.
They may get a bigger piece of that pie as a World Trade Organization agreement opens up purchasing to more competition, minimizing cronyism and nepotism that have capped women’s access to such business, she said in an interview today in Geneva.
“Women don’t think of themselves in certain kinds of positions, and therefore you need role models, you need an outreach program, you need to get a process of engagement,” said Francis.
The disparity is particularly pronounced in developing countries, although women in rich economies also get a disproportionately small share of such contracts, according to the ITC, the Geneva-based joint agency of the WTO and the United Nations. While 5 percent of federal contracts worth about $30 billion were to be allocated to female business owners in the U.S. last year, the actual number fell short of that figure.
“In the U.S., government procurement for women is less than 5 percent,” former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told a roundtable meeting in Geneva on the sidelines of the WTO’s ministerial conference. “That tells all of us that there are still barriers to procurement opportunities.”
On Dec. 15, after more than a decade of negotiations, the WTO clinched an agreement opening government-procurement contracts worth as much as $100 billion to foreign competition.
Robert Anderson, a counselor in the WTO’s intellectual property division, said the procurement accord is “very important for women” even though it covers no countries in Africa, where women are a growing economic force.
“The vision should be that women are also engaged in selling goods and services internationally,” he said. “We have to begin locally, but to really enrich and carry forward the development project and the empowerment project, it’s important that women suppliers in Africa shouldn’t only be thinking about supplying their own governments.”
Governments in many African countries put up obstacles to women interested in becoming entrepreneurs or politicians, said Kenya’s Water Minister Charity Ngilu, who began her own business career in the early 1980s when she opened a bakery.
“Every day I’m fighting with the government to say ‘please open the doors for women,’” she said at the roundtable. “Women are locked outside business. For the few women with power, it is so difficult. You can hardly make a contribution that will be heard and implemented.”
Education and outreach will be the keys to teaching women about the procurement process and helping to ensure that at least 5 percent of government contracts -- which in most nations account for between 15 percent and 20 percent of output -- are awarded to women within seven years, said the ITC’s Francis.
“We need a proactive process to let women understand what the opportunities are, work with them on ensuring that they meet standards required for procurement and to get them networked together,” she said.