How Can the Federal Government Strengthen Its Response to COVID-19?

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our third report on the implementation of the CARES Act and other pandemic relief measures. The report outlines the many effective steps the Administration and the Congress have taken to address issues, and identifies further steps to improve the nation’s response in these areas:

  • the medical supply chain
  • vaccines and therapeutics
  • data collection
  • stimulus payments
  • federal assistance to states and localities
  • K-12 schools
  • federal procurements
  • cybersecurity


Read on to learn more about what we recommended.  You can also listen to our podcast featuring GAO directors who have helped lead our review of the federal response to the pandemic.

The Medical Supply Chain

Shortages of personal protective equipment and testing supplies have happened because some supplies are not made in the U.S. and global demand for these supplies is high. We made recommendations to help the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) work together to continue making progress to stabilize the supply chain. Specifically, agencies should document plans for supply functions transitioning from federal partners to HHS; further develop and communicate about specific actions to mitigate supply shortages; and help state partners better track and plan supply requests.  

Vaccine Distribution Plan

On September 16, HHS and the Department of Defense (DOD) provided us with documents showing their plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine. We are evaluating this plan to make sure it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling, and to ensure it outlines how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. Having these elements in a plan would help ensure that the public receive access to any vaccine as soon as possible.

COVID-19 Data Collection

We have identified a need to collect reliable data that can drive decision-making. Specifically, better data is needed on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. We made recommendations on reporting race and ethnicity information for cases and hospitalizations to further explore potential disparities. We also found that HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes don’t capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS, in consultation with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the CDC, should develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020.

Economic Impact Payments

The IRS has issued economic impact payments to eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; but not everyone who was eligible received a payment or the correct amount. IRS took several actions to address challenges we reported on in June, including a policy change that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS don’t have up-to-date information on how many eligible recipients haven’t yet received their payments. This could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of people at risk of missing their payments. We recommended that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients to help target outreach and communications efforts.

Federal Assistance for States and Localities

The Coronavirus Relief Fund is the largest program established in the 4 COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid for state, local, territory, and tribal governments. Audits of entities that receive funds from programs like this are critical to safeguarding those funds. Additional audit guidance is needed for COVID-19-related programs. Supplemental information on auditing such programs is expected this fall, but further delays in issuing this guidance could undermine auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. We recommended that the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with Treasury, issue this audit guidance as soon as possible, as many audit efforts are under way.

Guidance for K-12 Schools

State and local school district officials faced tough decisions when deciding whether to reopen schools in their communities this fall, and when planning on how best to ensure students’ safety. These officials relied on and continue to look for guidance and recommendations from federal, state and local public health officials when making those decisions. Portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. CDC should ensure that its federal guidance on reassessing schools’ operating status is cogent, clear, and internally consistent.

Cybersecurity

We have identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies—including CMS, CDC, and the Food and Drug Administration—during the last 6 years. These weaknesses can pose risks to patient information, intellectual property, public health data, and intelligence. Based on imminent cybersecurity threats, we urge HHS to expedite implementation of our prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies.

How can you report suspected fraud to GAO?

It can be challenging to identify where to report your concerns when you have an allegation of fraud, waste, or abuse. But you can report any of your concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic or the CARES Act to GAO’s FraudNet.

Use any of these 3 methods for reporting your concerns to FraudNet:

  • Our online reporting portal
  • Via email at Fraud@gao.gov
  • Or by calling our hotline at 1-800-424-5454


Due to the coronavirus pandemic and recommendations to practice social distancing, FraudNet staff are working remotely. As a result, we strongly encourage you to submit your concern online so we may provide a more timely response and continue to serve the public.


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The Internet of Things (video)

“Internet of Things” (IoT) generally refers to everyday devices that you can find around your house—such as thermostats, smart speakers, or refrigerators—that now connect to a network or the Internet. But, the federal government is also using this technology for a variety of purposes.

Today’s WatchBlog features a new report issued this week and highlights our new video on how one federal agency IoT technology.

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things includes devices or “things” that connect with other devices throughout buildings, vehicles, transportation infrastructure, or homes. Devices that use IoT technology consist of 3 primary components—hardware (like sensors and processors), network connectivity (wireless devices that use Bluetooth or WiFi), and software (programs within hardware) that interact to complete tasks. For example, IoT technologies might allow you to track your workout rigor through a watch, sense visitors approaching your home from your doorbell, or order groceries online through voice-activated controllers in your home. For a business, for example those that deliver goods and services, it can be used to track delivery or vehicles progress toward your home. In general, the use of these IoT devices is growing fast—some experts forecast that 43 billion devices will be in use worldwide by 2023.

The Federal Government and the Internet of Things:

While homes and businesses see a growing use of IoT technologies, the federal government is another user of these devices. In a new report, we surveyed federal agencies to ask how they were using IoT technology. We received responses from 90 of 115 agencies surveyed. Most often, agencies told us that they use IoT tech to:

  • Control or monitor equipment or systems,
  • Control access to devices or facilities, or
  • Track physical assets such as fleet vehicles.

In 2019, the St. Lawrence Seaway, which allows ships to travel from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, added IoT technology to its locks. IoT technology is used in the mooring systems that are part of the locks. Specifically, the mooring system uses sensors and a vacuum system to control and monitor ships as they navigate the U.S. controlled-locks in the St. Lawrence Seaway. This video explains more:

Continue reading

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Mining on Federal Lands After the Gold Rush

Neil Young once sang that he’d been a miner for a heart of gold. If he was on federal land, he may or may not have had to pay a royalty on any hardrock minerals he found, like copper, molybdenum, or, of course, gold. The related laws are a bit complex—but we’ve got Neil covered.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our report on mining on federal lands.

A gold mine on federal lands in Nevada

Rockin’ In the Free World

There are 2 types of federal lands: acquired lands and public domain lands.

  • Acquired lands are those granted or sold to the United States by a state or citizen
  • Public domain lands usually were never owned by a state or private citizen and make up about 90% of all federal lands

Different statutes and systems govern the management of solid minerals on each type of federal lands.

On acquired lands, hardrock mining is subject to federal laws that allow the federal government to maintain title to the land but establish terms for using it, including royalties to be paid to the federal government. This is called a leasing system. The Bureau of Land Management generally uses it to authorize mining on acquired federal lands.

On public domain lands, hardrock mining is generally subject to the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows people to locate minerals and stake a claim to obtain the exclusive right to extract them without paying a federal royalty. This is called a location system. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service each maintain separate programs to evaluate and approve location system operations on lands they manage.

Besides hardrock mining, non-energy minerals (like sodium and phosphate) and coal can be mined on federal lands. This generally takes place under leasing systems. Operations under both location and leasing systems for both hardrock and non-energy minerals are subject to other environmental and natural resource management laws.

So, depending on the type of federal land and what kind of mineral is produced, mine operators may or may not be required to pay the government a royalty.

You Never Call

Our report dug deep into the data on mining on federal lands. We looked at hardrock, non-energy mineral, and coal mining there. We found that there are 872 authorized mining operations on about 1.3 million acres of federal land as of September 2018—most of which aren’t subject to royalties.

Mine operators paid about $550 million in royalties in FY 2018. But federal agencies don’t know exactly how productive hardrock mines on public domain lands are because these agencies generally don’t collect data from mine operators that don’t have to pay royalties.

To learn more about mining on federal lands, check out our report on the topic. To unearth still more on the topic, check out the data supplement.



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The Critical Role of Federal Partnerships with States & Local Governments During COVID-19

Partnerships between federal and local entities are key to achieving national goals for education, health care, transportation, and homeland security, as well as responding to emergencies such as hurricanes or—more recently— the coronavirus pandemic.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent report on how 24 of the largest federal agencies handled their intergovernmental affairs activities. Specifically, we identified their key responsibilities and activities, as well as their interactions with state and local governments.

Effective partnerships between federal agencies and state and local governments are critical for delivering economic relief and health care resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to this urgent challenge involves all levels of government—federal, state, local, tribal, and territories—and multiple programs and funding sources. For example, in an unprecedented step to respond to COVID-19, the federal government provided an estimated $335 billion in funds to agencies for assisting states, localities, territories, and tribes in their responses to the pandemic.

Outside of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, in 2019, the federal government awarded about $721 billion in grants to state and local governments for a wide range of activities.

How do federal agencies interact with state and local governments?

Because federal policy decisions often affect and require action from state and local governments, an executive order from 1999 provides a set of principles and criteria that executive agencies and departments must follow when formulating and implementing policies that affect state and local governments. This requires that each federal agency designate an official to implement the order. In our recent review, we found that 14 out of 24 selected agencies reported having such an official; 10 agencies did not report having one.

Our review found that most federal agencies established agency-wide intergovernmental affairs offices to share information and coordinate activities in their work with state and local counterparts, including assisting with identifying and applying for federal grants, providing information on regulations, and conducting outreach.

Our review also found that these offices varied in their approach to structuring their intergovernmental affairs operations. Of the 20 agencies with agency-wide intergovernmental affairs offices, half focused on intergovernmental affairs as their sole function while the other half included multiple functions, such as congressional or legislative affairs.

During our review, we met with state and local associations about their interactions with federal agencies’ intergovernmental affairs offices. While representatives from these associations reported interacting with federal agencies’ intergovernmental affairs offices for outreach and information-sharing purposes, they also said they sometimes faced challenges, such as:

  • difficulty identifying intergovernmental affairs contacts in federal agencies,
  • limited federal agency knowledge of state and local governments, and
  • inconsistent federal agency approaches to consultation on proposed regulations. 

How could federal interactions with state and local governments be strengthened?

We recommended that the Office of Management and Budget—which issued guidance to federal agencies on implementing the executive order—ensure that federal agencies meet the order’s requirements, especially by designating a federalism official. Doing so could contribute to meaningful and timely federal consultation with state and local governments.

Want to learn more about what we found? Be sure to check out the full report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Michelle Sager at sagerm@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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How Do Environmental, Social, and Governance Factors Relate to Investing?

Nonfinancial information about how companies operate can be an indicator of their long-term financial performance. This information includes how companies address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. ESG factors include things like climate change impacts and cybersecurity programs that may affect a company’s bottom line and thus, its stock price. The current COVID-19 global pandemic has further highlighted the importance of ESG factors, such as workplace safety and employee retention.

In today’s WatchBlog, we explore GAO’s recent work, which describes how investors use ESG disclosures and the kind of information public companies disclose on these topics.

How do investors use ESG information?

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires companies to publicly disclose, among other things, certain financial information and potential risks to investors. But investors have been increasingly asking companies for more information on ESG factors. The use of ESG factors has emerged as a way for investors to understand potential risks and opportunities that may not be included in financial analysis. Most investors that we interviewed agreed that ESG factors can affect a company’s long-term financial performance. These investors said they use ESG information to monitor companies’ management of risks, inform their vote at shareholder meetings, or make stock purchasing decisions. Most investors said they are looking for more ESG information from companies in their disclosures.

What kind of ESG information do public companies disclose?

We reviewed documents for 32 public companies and identified disclosures across many ESG topics. But we also found gaps and inconsistencies that could limit their usefulness to investors. Of the ESG topics we reviewed, companies most often reported about topics such as board accountability, workforce diversity, and climate change, and the least on human rights. SEC requires companies to report certain governance information, which may help explain why board accountability topics were the most reported.

As the figure below shows, most companies provided ESG information that was specific to the company in their disclosures, in topic areas like board selection and governance.  But in other areas, such as use and protection of consumer data, many companies shared either general information (not company-specific) or no information at all.  For example, most companies provided only generic information when describing obstacles that might limit the company’s ability to hire the talent it needs.

Figure: The Four ESG Disclosure Topics We Reviewed with the Most and Least Company-Specific Disclosures, Generally Covering Data from 2018

Note: We reviewed 32 companies’ 10-Ks, proxy statements, annual reports, and voluntary sustainability reports (generally with data from 2018, and some with data from 2017 and 2019).

Additionally, some companies used different units of measure or calculation methods. For example, companies used different base years when calculating their reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, airline companies we reviewed reported emission reductions with base years ranging from 1990 to 2017. This can make it hard for investors to compare ESG information across companies.

To learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of policy options to improve ESG disclosures, check out our recent report.


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FedRAMP—Ensuring Safe Use of Cloud Computing by Federal Agencies

Federal agencies increasingly use internet-based (cloud) services to fulfill their missions. However, those services pose cybersecurity risks when agencies don’t effectively implement related security controls.

The 2011 Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (or FedRAMP) aims to standardize the approach for federal use of cloud services. The FedRAMP program establishes security requirements and guidelines that are intended to help secure cloud computing environments used by agencies, helping protect agencies’ data, which could include information used to support their missions such as protecting public health.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at the FedRAMP policies and how agencies’ compliance with policies are monitored.  

Office of Management and Budget monitoring lags 

OMB requires agencies to use the program, but we found that it didn’t effectively monitor agencies’ compliance. This makes it harder to ensure that cloud services agencies are meeting federal security requirements.

From the customer perspective, officials from almost half of the 24 federal agencies we surveyed said FedRAMP had improved their data security. Agencies also reported that the program’s process for monitoring the status of security controls over cloud services was limited. Specifically, continuous monitoring should be automated to ensure that agencies are getting real-time information on the security status of the services they use. Currently, agencies have to gather and assess much of these data manually.

The Homeland Security Information Network is one example of a federal system using cloud services.

Enhanced guidance, improved cloud security recommended 

We recommended enhancing OMB oversight and improving the FedRAMP administrator’s guidance and monitoring. We also made specific recommendations to the FedRAMP administrator and the agencies in our review to help them improve cloud security and more.

Other GAO reports

Other GAO reports have discussed various aspects of FedRAMP, including Department of Agriculture data centers, federal agencies’ use of cloud computing and the Federal Communications Commission’s information security measures.


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From Submarines to Fighter Jets—Repairing DOD’s Vast Array of Weapon Systems

DOD’s repair depots ensure that critical weapon systems like aircraft, submarines, and tanks are ready for military operations. But if these depots can’t complete maintenance on time, DOD’s weapon systems can’t be used for operations and training.

So, how are DOD’s maintenance depots performing, when it comes to completing maintenance on time?

Today’s WatchBlog takes a look. 

The Navy’s struggles

The Navy is struggling to complete maintenance on time for its fixed-wing aircraft, aircraft carriers, and submarines.

For example,Navy depots were overall late completing select fixed-wing aircraft maintenance every year between FYs 2014-2019, completing maintenance on time about 50 percent of the time. Navy aircraft have spent over 62,000 more days in maintenance than expected since FY 2014. We recommended (among other things) that the Navy identify more accurate turn-around target times for aircraft maintenance.

Additionally, the Navy’s 4 shipyards completed maintenance on time for aircraft carriers and submarines just 25% of the time from FYs 2015-2019. The two main causes for the delays included unplanned work and issues with shipyard workforce performance and capacity, which resulted in the Navy relying on excessive use of overtime to attempt to address these issues. We recommended that the Navy address workforce requirements to avoid the excessive use of overtime. The photos below show a Navy F/A-18 and a submarine undergoing depot maintenance.

Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps depots

The Air Force, Army and Marine Corps have generally met their depot maintenance goals in recent years.

The Air Force’s depots completed aircraft maintenance on time or early 78% to 90% of the time between FYs 2014-2019. This was partly due to frequent communication between program offices and depot stakeholders.

The Army’s depots reported meeting their maintenance goals for about 91% of weapon systems in FYs 2018 and 2019. However, we found that the Army’s metric for meeting maintenance goals could be improved and that the Army experienced many changes to its planned workload. We made 4 recommendations to the Army, including that it could better plan workflow at its depots.

The Marine Corps’ depots also reported that theygenerally met maintenance goals for FYs 2015-2019. However, the Marine Corps metric for meeting maintenance goals doesn’t assess performance against original goals and doesn’t include all of its planned work.

The photos below show Army and Marine Corps weapon systems undergoing depot repair.

Lessons learned

While DOD’s depots have struggled to meet repair needs in recent years they have reported benefits from sharing best practices and lessons learned with each other. For example, one depot shared an improvement for a type of aircraft gearbox that reduced repair time from 95 weeks to 4 weeks.

DOD could do more to help depots share information—like creating a comprehensive list of depot working groups.


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How COVID-19 Could Aggravate the Homelessness Crisis?

The growing homelessness crisis in the U.S. could be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. While data on the impact COVID-19 is having on homelessness are not yet available, Congress has already made efforts mitigate its effects through passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). This effort included $4 billion for homelessness prevention and assistance.

Today’s WatchBlog considers some of the factors that may increase homelessness during the pandemic. It also draws from our recent report on factors associated with changes in the size of the homeless population in the United States.

Rental prices

In 2019, the estimated size of the homeless population grew to about 568,000—a 3% increase from the prior year, and the third consecutive year of growth.

To understand recent changes in the estimated size of the homeless population, we developed an economic model that found that rising rental prices were associated with increases in homelessness. The figure below shows estimated homelessness rates and median household rent, which includes actual rent paid by renters for occupied units with shared living situations rather than total rent for the entire unit. Therefore some localities, such as New York City, may appear to have lower rent than expected.

Specifically, we found that a $100 increase in median rent was associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate—even after accounting for a variety of other relevant factors, such as wages, unemployment rate, and poverty, as well as other demographic and economic characteristics. While the pandemic’s effect on rental prices is not yet clear, housing will likely remain unaffordable for some, particularly those in lower-income households.

Figure: Estimated Homelessness Rates and Median Household Rent in the 20 Communities with the Largest Homeless Counts in 2018

Unemployment and job loss

Job loss is also a common cause of homelessness, according to some of the community representatives we interviewed. For example, losing a job may force someone to take work for lower pay, which could cause them to fall behind on rent, and ultimately lead to eviction. Unemployment rates increased sharply during the coronavirus recession, raising concerns that an increase in the size of the homeless population could potentially follow.

Eviction

Evictions may contribute to homelessness. The CARES Act temporarily halted eviction filings for some tenants, but the moratorium did not cover all renters. Some state and local governments also established temporary moratoriums on evictions. However, many of these measures have already expired or are set to expire soon, and it is unclear how many renters will be able to stay in their homes once eviction filings resume.

Other factors

Poverty, mental health challenges, incarceration, and domestic violence also appear to be related to homelessness. In addition, our report recommended that the Department of Housing and Urban Development take steps to improve its data on homelessness.

Want to learn more about our work on homelessness and affordable housing? Check out our key issue pages on Homelessness and Affordable Rental Housing.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alicia Puente Cackley (cackleya@gao.gov).
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

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Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence, Plan for It

By Timothy Persons, GAO’s Chief Scientist and Managing Director of GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team.

Since the 1968 release of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, artificial intelligence (AI) has captured our imagination, inspiring both wonder and fear. Chief among those fears? That computers like “HAL” will take control of our lives and eventually replace us.

But this fear obscures the fact that AI does not replace, as much as it augments, human intelligence. With proper oversight in place, AI can be harnessed to drive innovation and competitiveness.

How is AI being used?

Perhaps the best example of how AI is spurring growth is in the health care field. There is a global push to develop vaccines and therapeutics to save lives and end the COVID-19 pandemic such as Operation Warp Speed, a vaccine development program which we are reviewing on a periodic and ongoing basis. In a report issued earlier this year, we found that AI can be used to decrease the time and cost required to bring new drugs to market, a process which traditionally takes 10 to 15 years.

Machine learning, a field of AI in which software learns from data to perform a task, is already being used in the early stages of drug development. It is helping researchers discover new medicines, protect humans in preclinical testing, and improve clinical trial design. 

For all its benefits, AI does present new challenges to policymakers—namely, how to ensure that these tools are free of bias and protect consumer privacy. I discussed these considerations in more depth during a healthcare keynote at the 2020 Ai4 conference.

What’s the role of federal oversight?

Data is the lifeblood of AI, and having good data leads to a healthier system and to healthier operations. I explored this idea in my recent podcast with the former Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent.

Policymakers could collaborate with relevant stakeholders to establish uniform standards for data and algorithms. There are costs associated with this approach, including potentially time- and labor-intensive changes, but it is this type of standardization that paves the way to clear, transparent data.

Finally, policymakers could consider the human side of the equation. It is not strictly about getting the algorithm and the machine right. We need to rethink how we are training the next generation to use these technologies. This will be key to reaching beyond what our predecessors could have imagined.

What’s next?

AI is infinitely more complex than narrow cinematic narratives can capture. With ever-expanding capabilities, the onus is on policymakers to ensure that oversight measures are in place to collect quality, standardized data, while also ensuring investment in human capital. This is a topic that we at GAO plan to examine in more detail, both at next month’s Comptroller General Forum on AI Oversight and in the coming years. AI has broad impacts to not only health care, but also the transportation, defense, financial, and energy sectors, among others, as well as the economic and social well-being of all Americans.

Rather than replace human intelligence, as HAL attempted to do, artificial intelligence augments it and can enable us to be better, grander versions of ourselves. We should embrace it.


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On the 100th Anniversary of the Women’s Vote, the Debate on Equality Issues Continues

One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee voted—by a slim margin of 50 to 47—to approve the women’s voting amendment. Tennessee was the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Ratification of the women’s vote in 1920 did not lead to immediate equality, nor did it lead to equal voting rights for all women. Women’s equality issues, and those facing racial minority groups, continue to be debated and addressed by federal, state, and local policymakers.

Today’s WatchBlog explores some of our work on the adoption of policies meant to promote girls’ and women’s achievement and equality.

Education and Title IX

School sports can promote confidence, social skills, and achievement for all students. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and all activities that receive federal funding—including sports.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, female participation in high school sports has increased. However, although schools are required to offer equal athletic opportunities, participation remains unequal. In 2017, our report on high school sports access and participation found that of the 77% of public high schools that offered sports, boys made up 57% of participation rates compared to 43% for girls. In 2018, another report on equal opportunities in high school sports found that the biggest factors that affected participation in public high school sports were the number of and interest in participation opportunities offered.

Women in leadership

Historically, women have been missing from leadership roles in business—particularly among financial service industries. While women representation has improved, certain leadership roles continue to have low levels of representation. For example:

  • In 2017, we reported that women held about 48% or less of non-senior management positions, but their representation in more senior management levels was smaller (29%).
  • In 2019, we found that the share of women board directors increased from 18% to 23% between 2015 and October 2018, but that women still comprised less than 25% of Federal Home Loan Bank board directors.
  • Similarly, our 2016 report on corporate boards showed that women held 16% of board seats in the S&P 500 in 2014—an increase from the percentage reported in 1997. Yet, even if equal numbers of women and men joined boards each year starting in 2015, we predicted that it would take 40 years for women’s representation to be equal with that of men.

Women were also underrepresented in the technology sector. For example, in 2017, we reported that women comprised only about 22% of technology workers. At that time, stakeholders we interviewed said that low representation of women could be caused by factors such as fewer women graduating with technical degrees, as well as companies’ hiring and retention practices.

Federal support of women-owned businesses

Over the years, the federal government has implemented several initiatives to support women-owned businesses. But are these programs effectively promoting opportunity and access for women?

Congress authorized the Women-Owned Small Business Program in 2000 to promote women-owned businesses by setting aside federal procurement opportunities for women in industries where they are underrepresented. The Small Business Administration (SBA) oversees this program and monitors third-party certifiers that determine whether or not a business can participate. However, when the SBA examined a sample of businesses that received contracts through the program in 2017, it found that 40% of these business were actually ineligible to participate. During our review of the Women-Owned Small Business Program in 2019, we found that SBA did not have plans to regularly monitor the compliance of these third-party certifiers. We recommended  that the SBA periodically review the eligibility of goods and services purchased through this program and implement recommendations from our 2015 report.

Similarly, as one of the country’s biggest advertisers, the federal government spends nearly $1 billion on advertising contracts. The government seeks to provide opportunities to award these contracts to certain types of businesses. In 2018, we found that the share of these contracts awarded to small disadvantaged businesses and those owned by women and minorities has generally increased over the years, averaging about 13% from 2013-2017. Most of the contracts were awarded from the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

As consumers, women may be paying more for certain products.

In 2018, we reported on concerns that women may pay more than men for similar consumer products, giving rise to what some call a “pink tax.” We examined 10 personal care products (e.g. deodorants, shampoo, shaving products).  After controlling for product size and other factors, we found that prices for half of the personal care items we looked at were higher for women, including deodorants and fragrances, but that some men’s items cost more, such as razors.

Whether the price differences were due to gender bias is unclear. Ad costs and consumer preferences also affect pricing. No federal law prevents firms from charging different prices for men’s and women’s products.


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