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OMWI: Take Advantage of Your Ally

posted May 6, 2015, 11:53 AM by Ann Sullivan

OMWI: Take Advantage of Your Ally

By Ann Sullivan

Did you have any idea that federal agencies have offices in 20 federal agencies that focus on the promotion of women and women-owned businesses? There are. They are the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion (OMWIs) in agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Established in the Dodd-Frank legislation in 2010, by Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California, these offices are charged with helping women-owned businesses become vendors and ensuring that women are hired in the agencies and the financial institutions they regulate. 

Advancing women is a practice the federal government that, until recently, was hardly ever focused on. In the federal government (nearly three million civilian employees), women are growing in number, though not necessarily influence. While 44% of the federal workforce is female, women hold only one-third of Senior Executive positions at federal agencies, according to Government Executive. One study by the Center for American Progress found that, on our current pace, it will take until 2085 for women to attain parity with men in leadership roles in our country. 

But that can change. While recently moderating a panel of two OMWIs – one from the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the other from the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau – it became clear that OMWI could named the Office of Women Advancement, because of their mandate to advance women internally and externally with their agencies. Raising the number and authority of women within the government is at the core of the twenty OMWIs. While the history of these offices has been well documented, women business owners should know the ways they can take advantage of these offices. 

Important to remember, these tips of using OMWIs to your benefit will largely only apply to the federal agencies dealing with financial matters or the Federal Reserve Banks. Nonetheless, using OMWI standards (discussed later in the article) with other agencies or in the private sector can prove to be a valuable approach. 

Diversifying the Supply Chain

Along with encouraging diversity within the workplace, OMWIs exist to enable more contract awards to women-owned businesses. Section 342 of Dodd-Frank goes to say that efforts to assist women extend to contracting, where OMWIs must support “inclusion in all levels of business activities.” That’s a large mandate to help women win more contracts. Moreover, these are the only offices that serve all women-owned businesses, not just women-owned small businesses. For the growing number of “mid-tier” women-owned contractors, this is a new avenue for support and access.  

Women are underrepresented in federal procurement opportunities, and OMWIs are trying to address this gap by awarding more contracts to women-owned businesses. OMWIs are only at the financial oversight agencies, thought their sister Offices of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBUs) exist in most other agencies. With that in mind, if federal contracting is in your business plan, then you should use OMWIs to get in the door. 

Inclusive Hiring and Leadership 

The most obvious place for inclusion is within an agency itself. Section 342 of Dodd-Frank (which established OMWIs) states, “Each agency shall take affirmative steps to seek diversity in the workforce of the agency at all levels of the agency....” Importantly, diversity in the workforce explicitly includes within senior management—the most important and often most bereft of women across the federal government. For example, according to the FHFA’s 2014 OMWI report, only one-third of the FHFA’s executive leadership is female. Only slightly better is the FDIC where women make up 35% of leadership - despite nearly half of the agency’s overall workforce. OMWIs are tasked with creating a more fair and diverse workplace within an agency’s hiring and leadership teams, meaning that they have the ability to offset this imbalance and underrepresentation of women.

How can this benefit you? Twofold. First, and most obvious, is if you have dreamed of holding a position in the civil service, then go for it. Let the OMWI be your ally. For those less inclined to join the federal workforce, this policy benefits women: simply put, the more women inside helps all the women outside.

Setting the Tone

The arm of OMWIs, however, extends beyond the government. Referring back to Section 342, these offices are responsible for developing “diversity policies and practices of entities regulated by the agency.” It is no secret that women at the table in leading financial positions are the exception, not the rule. Fortunately, with the advent of standards (from OMWIs) to ensure inclusion, this may be changing, and women may have a growing leadership role in the financial sector.

The abilities for this to be useful to women business owners are again, twofold. First, as these standards are developed, women should be at the table prioritizing and developing the standards. In conversations with OMWIs, they welcome feedback about how to achieve their mission. More importantly, however, may be the impact these new standards have on commercial entities regulated by these agencies. In the real estate world, for example, this includes banks that issue, buy, and sell loans. Providing women a stronger role in such a space would better represent the demographics affected by the decisions that lenders make. 

Bonus Benefit: Reporting Data

Mandated by law, OMWIs must submit annual reports available on agency websites. As a federally sanctioned document, the statistics and findings of these reports carry weight throughout government. In advocacy, especially at the federal level, numbers are everything. Culling these reports for data can get numbers that make the case. These reports, which are all available online, also provide data on regional differences and issues affecting women.

Taking advantage of available online resources is crucial in understanding the gaps, needs, and much-needed progress of women in the financial community. More importantly, this information can help your business determine its priorities in working with OMWIs. 

On the surface, Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion are advancing women in four ways. Through diversifying the supply chain, inclusive hiring and leadership, setting the tone for the commercial world, and providing much needed data, OMWIs are dedicated to women. Take advantage of your ally—get to know an OMWI.