In February, the federal government unveiled new rules to promote women-owned small businesses. Contracts under the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program are to be awarded by the fourth quarter of 2011. This should help the government reach its 5 percent goal for contracting to women-owned businesses. (In 2010 only 3.4 percent of federal contracting dollars were awarded to female entrepreneurs.)

When compared to all privately held firms, women-owned businesses employ 13 percent of the workforce and account for 11 percent of all business revenue, according to the recent American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Business Report. However, much more can be done to boost this group. Only 1.8% of women-owned businesses currently have revenue that exceeds $1 million. American Express Open executive vice president Denise Pickett says government contracts are critical because they are one area of the economy that is on the rise. “Government spending in many areas has either remained consistent or increased in a time when other prospects' spending has decreased,” she stated in May testimony to the House Small Business Committee.

Until now, women have qualified for government contracting under the so-called 8(a) rule—section 8a of the Small Business Act of 1953—which was designed to ensure socially and economically disadvantaged U.S. citizens have the opportunity to compete on an equal basis in the American economy. The WOSB, which women will qualify for in addition to 8(a) is expected to further increase federal contracting opportunities for women once contracts begin to be awarded later this year.

The new rule will help some women-owned businesses get an edge. Here’s how you can position yourself to benefit from it:

1. Contact Your SBA Representative

The SBA website offers a host of tools to get you started.

Other networks will also arise depending on what type of business you are providing. For example, Theresa Daytner (How One Woman Entrepreneur Plans to Benefit From New Federal Contracting Rules) works with the US General Services Administation and Society of American Military Engineers on federal contracts, and networks with the Construction Management Association of America.

2. Register on the Federal Contracting Database

This is the first place federal procurement officers look when they are searching for contractors. Register your firm on the Central Contractor Registration national database. CCR is an online government-maintained database of companies wanting to do business with the Federal government available at

In addition, know that American Express has partnered with Women Impacting Public Policy to create "Give Me Five," a program designed to help more women gain access to federal contracting opportunities and help the government reach its 5 percent goal. The program has so far helped 25,000 women business owners register their firms on the Central Contractor Registration national database.

3. Define Your Company as a Women-Owned Small Business and Get Certified as Such

Your company must be at least 51 percent woman-owned, and primarily managed by one or more women. Ownership should be unconditional and direct, and the owners must be U.S. citizens. The company must also be a small business, according to the SBA. In general, that means the small business has fewer than 500 employees if it's in the manufacturing and mining industry or less than $7 million in average annual receipts if it is a non-manufacturing business. However, the standards vary.

You can either self-certify using guidelines on the SBA site or contact four approved organizations to get certified under the WOSB program: the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, National Women Business Owners Corporation, National Women Business Owners Corporation, or Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

4. Be Sure Your Company Offers Services in One of 83 Qualifying Industries

To qualify for a WOSB contract, your business must fall into one of 83 industries in which the SBA says women owners are “underrepresented or substantially underrepresented”. If your main business does not qualify, you can also expand service offerings, or find opportunities to partner. You are not pigeonholed in one area.

5. Provide Documentation to the WOSB Program Repository

If you already have 8(a) certification, you only need to provide your firm’s initial 8(a) certification and your WOSB certification (see step 3 above). If you don't, there are additional requirements which WOSB Compliance Guide details: everything from birth certificates and articles of incorporation to stock ledgers. This secure, Web-based platform (which you can find through directions here) will enable federal contracting officers access to documents prior to contract award to determine eligibility.  

6. Sign into ORCA, the Online Representations and Certifications Application

After you register and submit documents to the WOSB Program Repository, you sign into ORCA. This is the primary government repository for contractor-submitted representations and certifications required for the conduct of business with the government. This database does not collect certification documents, but collects paperwork needed for the federal contracts.

7. Ready, Set, Go!

Apply for government contracts.