How to Address the Embarrassing Issue of Pay Inequity

02/06/2014 01:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

On Jan. 29, 2009, President Obama signed into law his first piece of legislation.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was supposed to put an end to pay discrimination based on gender, race, religion or disability. Named after a former Goodyear tire supervisor who was paid less and sexually harassed at the plant where she worked in Alabama, the legislation was designed to level the playing ground for pay between women and men.

Five years later, almost to the day, President Obama addressed women's pay once again, this time in his State of the Union speech.

Guess what? Very little has changed.

"Today, women make up about half our workforce," Obama said on Jan. 30. "But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship -- and you know what, a father does, too.

It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men" episode. This year, let's all come together -- Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street -- to give every woman the opportunity she deserves.

The President's description of gender discrimination as "an embarrassment" is a good one. To address it, we must do more. The president and other lawmakers can lead the way.

One idea comes from Lilly Ledbetter herself. As she put it in a Jan. 17 Washington Post piece, President Obama could sign an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from doing business with contractors who don't pay women and men equally for the same amount of work.

I think we should take it one step further. Since change comes from the top -- whether in government or in business -- we should require that federal contractors have at women in at least 30 percent of their board of director seats to qualify for federal contracts.

But regardless of President Obama's and other lawmaker's attempts to stop the "embarrassment" of gender discrimination in the workplace, here's what we know:

We can't do it just by passing laws or making speeches.

We must demand -- with our voices, with our shopping dollars, with our investment portfolios -- that companies pay women equal wages, or else lose our support, our business and our investments.

We should applaud, do business with, and invest in companies that are moving in the right direction by adding more women in corporate boards and executive positions, and making an effort to smooth the pay inequality gap.

We should boycott businesses who aren't addressing gender inequality.

How to decide what companies are best and worst for women? For starters, Calvert Investments has a list here. You can also read more in this story from Forbes.

Businesses should pay and promote women equally because it's the right thing to do. But they should also do it because it's the smart thing to do.

Along with representing half of the population, half of the workforce and half of the college graduates, women also make most of the buying decisions in most households and control the majority of private investment funds in America.

Having more women in top jobs, and with equal pay, means companies can make better, more strategic decisions that appeal to more customers and potential customers. It also makes for a better work environment.

The reason for ending gender inequality in the workplace is simple, really.

President Obama hit the nail on the head in his State of the Union Speech.

"I firmly believe," he said, "when women succeed, America succeeds."