You’ve undoubtedly heard that the average working woman earns less—between 77 and 82 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—than the average full-time working women. This statistic is often referred to as the “wage gap,” and is cited as evidence that our economic system remains hostile to women.

Yet the “wage gap” actually tells us little about the role discrimination plays in the workplace.  

That’s because the statistic doesn't compare two similarly-situated coworkers.  The wage gap statistic merely compares all men and all women, ignoring the many factors that we know influence how much someone earns.  

Consider time worked.  The Department of Labor’s Time Use survey shows that full-time working women spend an average of 5 percent less time on the job each day then men do. Both are “full-time” workers for the purpose of calculating the wage gap, but it's hardly a surprise that someone who works more hours would also earn more, on average.  This one fact alone accounts for more than a quarter of the wage gap.

Women and men also pursue work in different economic sectors.  Men dominate fields like construction, manufacturing and trucking, while women cluster in teaching, health care and the social services.  Women tend to gravitate toward jobs with fewer risks, more comfortable conditions, regular hours, more personal fulfillment and greater flexibility.

Simply put, many women—not all, but enough to have a big impact on the statistics—willingly trade higher pay for other desirable job characteristics.

Men, by contrast, often take on jobs that involve physical labor, outdoor work, overnight shifts and dangerous conditions (which is also why men suffer the overwhelming majority of injuries and deaths at the workplace). They put up with these unpleasant factors so that they can earn more.

When all of these factors are controlled for, the wage gap shrinks considerable though most analyses show that a few percentage points linger.  Discrimination may be the cause of this remaining gap, but it could also be caused by other factors, like women not being as comfortable negotiating salaries and asking for raises as men.  That’s important information for women to have:  We need to keep this in mind when we are next evaluating a job offer or have a performance review and should teach our daughters to be comfortable in talking about money.

What’s more, efforts to “close” the wage gap through government legislation will not create “equal” pay, but simply expand the definition of “wage discrimination,” make it easier to file class-action lawsuits and open businesses up to greater litigation and uncertainty. It would make it nearly impossible for employers to tie compensation to work quality, productivity and experience, reduce flexibility in the workplace, and make women far more costly to employ.

This information is empowering.  Women should know that the wage gap doesn’t mean they are doomed to being short-changed by a sexist workplace.   The wage gap is primarily a reflection of the many different choices that individual men and women make about work.  That’s why eliminating the wage gap through more government isn’t even the right goal:  Ensuring that men and women all have an equal opportunity to work and fulfill their vision of happiness is.