Desperate men often resort to clichéd lines when trying to snare women. Senator John Kerry must be desperate, because he dragged out the tired, misleading statistic about the so-called wage gap during last night’s debate; namely, that women only earn 76 cents for each man’s dollar.

This factoid comes from Department of Labor data on the average wage of a full-time working woman and the average wage of a full-time working man. And, yes, if you look at those numbers you will find that the average woman earns about three quarters of the income of the average man.

But that statistic ignores many relevant factors that affect a worker’s take-home pay. For starters, it doesn’t adjust for number of years worked. On average, women spend about a decade out of the workforce to care for their families. It should come as no surprise to Senator Kerry that a 35-year-old woman reentering the workforce after ten years off earns less than a man or woman who worked continuously during that time.

The wage-gap statistic also fails to consider educational attainment. Today, women earn more than half of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but it wasn’t always that way. Older women in the workforce tend to have less education than their male peers, which affected their career path, their salaries, and ultimately Department of Labor data.

Women and men also often have different priorities when assessing employment opportunities. One survey of working women found that for nearly three quarters a flexible schedule was “very important” when considering a job. This means that many women are willing to trade more money for more flexibility or time off.

Gender warriors at leftist feminist groups like the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women lament that women still sacrifice their careers to take on a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities. But many women sincerely want to spend more time with their families. And regardless of whether it’s out of duty or desire, full-time working women tend to spend less time in the office than full-time working men. The recently released Department of Labor time-use study revealed that a full-time working woman spends a half hour, or seven percent, less time in the office on an average work day than the typical full-time working man.

Several studies that took these factors into account found a considerably smaller wage gap between men and women. One study focused on childless men and women aged 27 to 33 and found that women in that group earned 98 cents for every male dollar.

While this information is encouraging since it suggests that similarly situated men and women can earn the same amount, the ultimate goal should not be to achieve parity on this artificial measure. If some women want to forgo more dollars for more time with family, then the “wage gap” that results isn’t a problem, it’s just a number. Attempts to “fix” the perceived problem — for example, by forcing businesses to report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission their process for setting and adjusting wages as feminist groups sometimes propose — will make women worse off. To more easily comply with this regulation and avoid the threat of government action, many employers might simply no longer offer the very kinds of flexible work arrangements most appealing to many women.

But if you still aren’t convinced that “76 cents on the dollar” is a misleading statistic, consider what its veracity would mean. If women perform the same work as men for three quarters of the pay, then a company that hired only women would have a huge advantage over its competitors. Its fixed employment costs would be much lower for the same amount of output. Sexism in the marketplace would have to be so strong that other companies would rather lose businesses and have higher labor costs — maybe go bankrupt — rather than try to attract these productive female employees by offering them more money. To believe that a huge persistent wage gap exists is to believe that the market truly doesn’t work.

The market does work. That does not mean that every woman — or man — will be blessed by the perfect employer. Certainly some women experience discrimination and are treated unfairly, which affects their pay and these numbers. But Senator Kerry’s statement implying that this wage gap is the result of pure discrimination ignores the real choices that American women make about their careers. It was a sorry ploy to convince women they are victims who need a President Kerry as their savior. Women should treat his advance like a barroom pick-up line and tell this suitor to get lost.