Feds pursue social procurement as report urges more help for women entrepreneurs

OTTAWA — A new report is adding to the growing pressure on governments to use their multibillion-dollar buying power to help support businesses run by women — and all signs suggest Ottawa has heard their cry.

Much work remains to ensure female entrepreneurs can fully contribute to the Canadian economy, says the study, co-funded by the federal government. It recommends a simplified procurement process to recognize the needs of small businesses and companies operated by women.

The report released Wednesday comes just two weeks before the federal budget, which is expected to emphasize gender equality and lay out efforts to boost the role of women in the workforce.

Some groups expect to see new measures to make federal procurement approaches more inclusive for under-represented groups. Ottawa could follow the lead of a U.S. model that sets aside procurement funds for women-owned businesses, said one expert who’s been consulting with the government on the issue.

The Liberal government is already taking tangible steps toward adjusting procurement practices to ensure more bidders from diverse backgrounds have access to public-sector contracts — an approach sometimes referred to as social procurement.

In recent weeks, Ottawa has reached out for industry feedback on how it could increase the diversity of bidders to include more women, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities.

The government “intends to implement a social procurement approach to leverage the government’s buying power through procurement to support socio-economic objectives and to generate positive societal impacts,” reads a federal document posted earlier this month on a government tendering website.

The document also quotes from the mandate letter that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued to Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough, which calls on her to develop initiatives to increase the diversity of bidders on government contracts.

It also said Ottawa is considering a couple of models to confirm that a supplier meets the definition of a “diverse supplier.” One option is for suppliers to self-certify through an attestation, while another possibility would rely on recognized third parties to verify that they meet the criteria.

The president of WBE Canada, which is listed in the federal document as one of the organizations that could be called upon to verify suppliers, said she’s been talking with federal officials about social procurement.

Mary Anderson called it an excellent strategy for leveraging the government’s substantial buying power in a “very positive way.”

“We’re looking at some of the issues that could be tackled and that’s now at a heightened awareness and interest at that level,” said Anderson, whose organization certifies businesses that are majority-owned, managed and controlled by women.

“There is a momentum for this initiative now that I’ve never seen before.”

Canada is being encouraged to emulate a “template” in the U.S., she added — a change Anderson said would be welcome in the Canadian context.

Last month, a binational Canada-U.S. women-in-business group, created by Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump, called on Ottawa to increase procurement opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Their report urged the Trudeau government to establish a program like one in the U.S. that sets aside five per cent of public contracts for women-owned businesses in sectors where women are underrepresented.

It also recommended linking the programs, allowing women to qualify for contracts in either country.

Wednesday’s report made 40 recommendations to governments, financial institutions and female entrepreneurs. It was co-funded by the Bank of Montreal, Carleton University, the Beacon Agency and the federal government.

It recommended all levels of government use procurement programs as a means to support small and medium firms and minority-owned businesses. The study also called for supplier diversity policies for federal Crown corporations and agencies.

It also described entrepreneurs who reported experiencing discrimination and sexism, including comments about their appearance, level of experience, knowledge and attire. They also reported a lack of understanding that women pitch their businesses differently.

“We know that women entrepreneurs are developing innovative approaches to business and actively contributing to growing the Canadian economy,” said Clare Beckton, co-author and executive in residence at Carleton University’s Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work.

“In spite of their important contributions, this report identifies why they are continuously and systematically underappreciated, and what must be done to remedy this issue.”

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