If you found out that the guy sitting in the cubicle next to you — a guy with the same college degree, job responsibilities, and employment experience — was making more than you were simply because he is a man and you are a woman, you would be justifiably outraged. Such unfair treatment has been illegal since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963.

But if you found out that your boss brought home a bigger paycheck than her assistant, or that you earned more than your colleague who works part-time, you would probably not think twice about it. After all, common sense dictates that some people earn more than others, whether because they possess certain skills that are in greater demand, have more experience, or simply choose to work harder or under more difficult conditions. These factors, along with educational attainment, life choices, consecutive years in the workforce and the like, have a strong effect on earnings. “Wage gaps” exist among workers for many reasons.

On Equal Pay Day — falling this year on May 11 — you heard quite a bit about a particular wage gap: the one that supposedly exists between men and women. “Women earn only 75 cents on the male dollar,” the story goes, and the implication is that this figure is evidence of discrimination against women in the workplace.

But the first question you should ask yourself is: Where does this figure come from? The answer is that it is a crude comparison arrived at by simplistically comparing women’s average wages (without regard to age, education, experience, full- or part-time status, or even type of job) to the average wages of men. This comparison yields a gender wage gap of 24 to 27 cents. Far from being a shocking statistic, however, this is exactly what one should expect. Looking around, it is clear that many more men than women fill the highest-paying jobs, particularly executive positions in large corporations. It is equally clear that women hold the vast majority of jobs in certain fields with relatively modest earning potential, including secretarial work and teaching.
The real question is whether these observations are evidence that women are the victims of wage discrimination. Let’s start by comparing apples with apples: As data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth reveal, among people ages 27-33 who have never had a child, women earn 98 cents on the male dollar. Many economists have demonstrated that similarly qualified men and women earn the same wages. Only by ignoring crucial factors related to compensation such as education, experience, and field of employment can you find a wage gap. Second, the gap lags behind current behavior. Women’s average earnings today reflect the educational and career choices they made years and even decades ago. Today women are earning more than half of all college degrees and nearly half of all graduate degrees. Many of these women will earn higher salaries than their mothers, if they choose to pursue higher-paying fields.

And it is this factor-choice- that is too often left out of wage gap discussions. Personal choices have a strong effect on our earnings. In the office where I work, one employee leaves in the mid-afternoon so that she can be home with her children after school. For her, time spent with family is far more valuable than the additional money she would earn from working those few extra hours every day. A wage gap certainly exists between her and her coworkers, but it is not one caused by discrimination. Another woman I know left a lucrative job in the public relations department of a large corporation to start her own business. She took a pay cut, which contributed to the lower average earnings of all women, but she is far happier as an entrepreneur than she was as a cog in a corporate machine.

Choices have consequences. In a free society such as ours, the law can (and does) guarantee equal opportunity, but it cannot and should not dictate outcomes. It is hearten-ing that women today have such a broad range of options available to them-whether they want to be CEOs, teachers, astronauts, full-time moms or entrepreneurs. If women or men choose to balance their professional and personal responsibilities by seeking flexible work arrangements or shifting to part-time work, that, too, is a legitimate choice.

The gender wage gap is a manufactured crisis borne of interest group politics, not a reflection of the reality of women’s lives. The arguments advanced by feminist groups on Equal Pay Day are deliberately misleading. Worse, their underlying assumption is that women are incapable of making free and informed decisions about their lives-or for standing up for their right to fair compensation. I for one have more faith in the female sex. I know that we will continue to succeed-but on our own terms.

This article appeared on iVillage.com