We hear a lot about the 77-cent gender wage gap, which studies have proven is narrower to less than a dime's difference or by some studies even only two cents difference. We're constantly told whatever the gap is, it is caused by discrimination against women.

New evidence shows that unexplainable elements driving the small pay gap have diminished over the past few decades. In a new working paper entitled, The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations, researchers analyzed data from 1980 to 2010 on the gender pay gap and found it is now explained by choices in occupation and industries. That’s not a call to mandate that women go into higher paying industries, but acknowledgement that if we choose certain careers we may have to face lower paychecks because of how those occupations and industries are valued.

However, the researchers found that certain occupations and industries are seen as “men’s jobs” or “women’s jobs” and the market values them differently. Generally, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields attract men while so-called HEAL (health, education, administration, and literacy) jobs attract women. Over time, women have gravitated to the “men’s jobs,” boosting our overall earnings potential, but the reverse hasn’t happened at the same pace.

Ordering more women into STEM or men into HEAL occupations is not the answer because men and women pursue occupations out of choices that are not solely due to money. Brookings reports on the study noting:

… In fact, both men and women tend to select occupational fields that fit gender stereotypes rather than their own individual interests. Young women with a range of interests that would suggest a good match for a business career nonetheless plan a career in health sciences. Men with interests pointing toward education jobs choose engineering. This suggests that gender stereotypes about work result in a mismatch between interests and careers.

Women might also select an occupation known for greater flexibility, anticipating the demands of motherhood. In which case, the solution is two-fold: equalize parenting responsibilities, and introduce more flexibility into traditionally male workplaces. There is, after all, scant evidence that macho working hours and styles have served Wall Street or other sectors very well.

Women select lower-paying occupations not because we’re less educated. As I wrote recently in the New Boston Post, young women are outpacing men on college campuses and in degrees conferred at every level. Young women can now pursue post-secondary education and go into any occupation we choose or we can choose to raise our families at home. However, the decisions we make are not inconsequential.

The majors we study in college and how consistently we stay in the workforce and all of the decisions in between effect our earnings potential. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the 10 highest median wage majors for college grads both early in their career and mid-career are in the fields of engineering and business. Among the bottom 10 are social services, psychology, fine arts, early childhood, education performing arts, and religion. Men gravitate toward the former and women toward the latter.

Women have come a long way and that cannot be overlooked. That’s a testament to the sacrifice and hard-fought battles for equality fought by past generations. Parity may never be the outcome, but equal opportunity for women and men must be the goal. Progress is achieved when any young woman has the choice to pursue occupations once dominated by men, not that there are arbitrary quotas filled with women based on a social agenda and not merit.