In his inaugural address, the President said, “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” He didn’t trot out his usual “women earn 77 cents on a man’s dollar” line from his campaign days or specify what he had in mind for the journey’s end but clearly he’s leaning toward the “collective” action of a government mandate.

Such government action has not led the way in the past in erasing historic disparities. Research shows that the gradual narrowing of the wage gap between men and women over the past century did not occur after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act or the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; rather it happened in the 1980s when women made significant investments in their education and training. Today women earn more bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees than men. They earn almost half of all medical, legal, and dentistry degrees. In other words, women deserve the credit for catching up to men, not the government.

What gap remains can be explained by women’s decisions—not systematic discrimination. When you take into account men and women’s choices regarding occupations, college majors, and time in the job, the wage gap all but disappears. A 2009 Labor Department study found the wage gap is between 4.8 and 7 cents when such choices are taken into consideration.

What are these choices? Women tend to have fewer accumulated hours and years in their occupation than men who do the same work. A fulltime male employee tends to work 8-10% more hours than a fulltime female employee. Women often take time off or work part time when caring for young children and this impacts their income. In short, they choose time over money. This is borne out by a report by Time Magazine last year stating that a single woman in her 20s in Dallas makes $1.18 to a man's $1. I suspect that if these women were tracked into their thirties, the gap would reverse course as their priorities changed.

Time in the job isn’t the only factor. A 2009 study found that men choose college majors based primarily on income potential while women consider other attributes in addition to financial benefits such as parental approval and potential enjoyment. Money isn’t everything after all. Many of us consider factors such as emotional fulfillment, contribution to the community, opportunity for creativity and collaboration, and time flexibility when looking at job opportunities. Some jobs which are financially lucrative are frankly, soulless drudgery. 

To be certain there are still sexist dinosaurs out there who ogle their administrative assistants, tell sexist jokes and make a point of paying women less than their male counterparts. Very often these cretins have a tough time keeping employees because women have other options. Their existence does not justify wholesale government intervention that could leave women with fewer options to set priorities in their lives.