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Women's Group Aids Owners of Building Firms

November 22, 2000|STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since 1984, the California chapter of Women Construction Owners and Executives USA has worked on behalf of its 200 members to champion legislation and organize business-development programs with the aim of increasing opportunities for women in the construction industry. Rose Girard, the group's California president and owner of a Riverside contracting company, recently spoke about the organization's activities and its future at a time when the last vestiges of the state's affirmative-action efforts could soon be ruled unlawful.

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Q Why is there a need for an organization like WCOE?

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A Women in the construction industry are not the norm, so we need to educate our representatives and those who are putting the bids out that we need at least an opportunity to show what we can do. It's not the norm to look through your Rolodex and say, "Oh, that's a woman-owned company, I think I'm going to hire her." Unfortunately it just doesn't work that way. All we're trying to do is ask for a good-faith effort. At least give us a shot to bid on a project, and we'll do the rest.

Back in 1984, there were many organizations that touched on women who worked in the construction industry, but there wasn't a group for women who were owners of construction companies. The women who started WCOE felt the need to be able to take on legislation and issues that hindered women in the industry. The other organizations weren't allowed to do that because women in those groups worked for other companies and didn't own their own businesses. With WCOE, as owners of businesses, we can take on legislation or issues without anyone telling us we can't. Legislative advocacy continues to be one of the main focuses of the group.

We also do a lot of other things. Women compete to increase opportunities for women in the construction industry. We put on monthly meetings in five regions throughout the state, and we have agencies come out and speak regarding different opportunities for work and bids that are out there. We put on seminars to let members know what they need to know about putting together a good bid, complying with regulations from OSHA or working with the public sector. We also help our members build their businesses so they can be more profitable, stronger companies.

And we encourage members to get involved in their communities. Many of our members have testified before Congress, the U.S. Senate and the county Board of Supervisors on different issues. We try to let them know community is just as important as business.

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Q What will WCOE do if the California Supreme Court prohibits public agencies from reaching out to and recruiting women-owned businesses, an action the court is currently considering and may rule on by early December?

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A We would just have to continue to pound the pavement to let them know we haven't arrived yet. We have only just started to bloom. We're only just starting to show some real success stories. Affirmative action on the state and federal level basically opened the door for women in the construction industry, and we have a lot of women involved today because of it. I think it would be an even more difficult road for women trying to open those doors.

The passage of Proposition 209 (which among other provisions forbids set-asides for women and minorities in public-works projects) already made it harder. Our membership fell after 209 because a lot of women got discouraged. They have sort of clipped our wings just as we started to fly. But we're not going to give up. We're just going to get more aggressive. And we still have affirmative action at the federal level, so a lot of us are following those federal dollars.

At the state level, a lot of them are just saying, "Why should I bother?" I don't think we can really leave it up to the agencies and prime contractors to know it's a good thing to do and reach out to us on their own. Unfortunately that's just not going to work. It didn't happen in the past. It's certainly not going to happen today. And the truth of the matter is we got such a small portion even with affirmative action. We only got 2% of the contracts at the most. So we're going to have to sit down and have a lot of discussions in the next few months to see what we can do to keep the doors open.

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Q How is contract bundling hurting women-owned construction companies?

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A We work very hard against the bundling of contracts, and this is good for all small contractors because if a bid is broken down to smaller parts, more contractors have the opportunity to work on it.

Contract bundling hurts because most women-owned businesses are not large contracting companies. They're $1-million, $2-million companies at the most. If you start to make the contracts so large that we cannot bid on them, that certainly doesn't do anything for us.

There's no reason for the contracts to be so bundled where you include the whole scope of the work under one contract. The only ones that can bid on them when you do that are the big, big boys. If they are broken up into smaller components, we won't have to rely on big contractors reaching out to us. We can bid on them ourselves.

What we try to do is educate agencies that bundling erodes competition and raises their own costs. If they break it up, they're going to have more competition and they're going to get a better price for the work they want.

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For more information about WCOE, call (323) 283-5131 or visit their Web site at http://www.wcoeusa.org.

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