Next Stop: Equal Pay Day

Not quite as punctual as the legendary Swiss trains, Equal Pay Day in Switzerland still arrives a lot earlier than in the U.S.: a full month earlier. Women in Switzerland did not get the right to vote until 1972, but Equal Pay Day in Switzerland took place March 7. Here in America, it is observed April 8.

Equal Pay Day marks how long a woman needs to work to make what men made the previous year. It shows the pocketbook effect of the gender pay gap.

How did the Swiss make so much progress in so little time? As soon as laws on the books required equal pay for equal work, they got to work. Anyone who owns a Swiss watch or who has taken a Swiss train, knows that the Swiss are exacting engineers. When their laws (like our Equal Pay Act of 1963) mandated equal pay for equal work, the government announced it would only do business with companies that complied with the law.

First they created an assessment tool, a software program available for free on the Internet for all Swiss companies to assess their gender pay gap. Government contractors conducted the software audits and were given a grace period during which they could rectify inequities in pay schedules. In the tradition of Swiss secrecy, they were not required to reveal the results of this audit, but the rule was clear: If you are not paying men and women equally, you cannot contract with the Swiss Government.

It was sold in part as a way to even the playing field for companies with more male workers. The rationale was that companies hiring more women were getting an unfair competitive advantage because they could pay them less. The gender equality mandate was promoted as a way to be more equitable in contracting.

Once the grace period was over, when Swiss pay equity requirements were in effect, companies not in compliance were handled much like scofflaws on the trams. You can ride the tram for months in Switzerland, and no one ever checks for a ticket. But if you happen to be caught, you are subject to a very steep fine. With this "object lesson" approach, no one wants to be caught, and pretty much no one cheats.

In tram-like fashion, every year, the Swiss government requires a few randomly selected contractors to open the books and prove they are paying men and women equally. If they don't there are stiff fines and penalties, and their days of working with the government are imperiled.

In his state of the union address this year, President Obama advocated an end to a "Mad Men" culture that has seen a decade long stagnation on equal pay. At the same time, he astutely called for requiring federal contractors to give low-wage workers a raise to $10.10 an hour.

With so many families now relying on the earning power of women, why not take that supply chain approach a step further to require our government contractors to pay men and women equally? The relative success of the Swiss model speaks for itself.

In Switzerland the train schedule is treated as a sacred promise. Not to adhere to the schedule is tantamount to breaking that promise. If a train is one or two minutes behind schedule, the conductor himself will get on the speaker system, apologize and pledge to start making up the time.

If you think about it that way, for the federal government to do business with companies that do not adhere to federal equal pay laws is also a broken promise. The Swiss are using the engine of the federal procurement supply chain to rectify that. Just give them a little more time, and they will be marking Equal Pay Day when we all should, at the end of the calendar year.

It's a little late, but there's still time for America to get on board.