During the second night of the second Democratic presidential debate, several candidates were asked about Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) proposal to close the gender pay gap by hammering businesses that show pay gaps with fines. 

The question was loaded and tilted in favor of Harris, but it should have been a chance to correct the record on the 80-cent gender pay gap statistic, which is often misleadingly presented as a metric of gender discrimination. None of the candidates did. They would rather keep women believing that they are victims rather than empower them with truth and knowledge.

Several candidates were asked whether they supported Harris’s plan, which would force private companies to obtain certification that they do not pay men and women with the same jobs differently. Instead of telling the truth — that the gender pay gap is driven by the choices women make in the workplace — they capitulated. We heard the tired “equal work for equal work” slogan, and Andrew Yang pitched the usual leftist solution of throwing money at the problem (in the form of a $1,000 check) to give women “a leg up.” 

It’s true that women earn about 80 cents on the dollar that men earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, this is not a true apples-to-apples comparison. The statistic represents the averages for men’s and women’s earnings, but not men and women in the same jobs, with the same experience or hours. 

Men work more hours each day than women and are more likely than women to work full-time and in higher-paying professions. For example, men work 8.3 hours per day on average compared to 7.8 hours for women. The difference in hours accounts for 11 cents of the total wage gap alone.

When the BLS controls for job-related factors such as profession, industry, seniority, experience, education, hours and working conditions, the pay gap shrinks to a few cents. 

Employment compensation website PayScale.com found that the 2019 pay gap is just 2 cents when controlling for these factors. This is hardly evidence of systemic discrimination against women. Instead, it suggests that men and women make different choices about work, and those choices drive the gender wage gap. 

Family caregiving is an important factor driving women’s decisions about work. Women are more likely to take time off to have children than men. They are also more likely to prioritize flexibility over salary to balance the competing demands from work and home. They are willing to trade a higher salary and promotions for less travel, more flexible schedules, or more time off. 

As a result, at the start of their careers women and men have virtually no wage gap. At about age 25 — the age people generally begin to start families — the disparity begins to emerge.

In addition, women do not negotiate as much as men do and this hurts their earnings. A 2016 Glassdoor study, for example, found that over two out of three women (68 percent) accepted the salary offered to them and did not negotiate, 16 percentage points fewer than men (52 percent). 

Women are smart enough to make the right decisions for themselves, their future and their families. What they need is information about salaries and coaching to negotiate for what they want. And not just when they enter the workforce but even in high school and college.

Gender discrimination is illegal and has been since the 1964 Equal Pay Act. We don’t need new laws or punitive policies. Women can seek legal redress if they have been paid less solely based on their gender. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates tens of thousands of such sex-discrimination claims each year.

Democratic lawmakers know this, and they know that many factors determine pay and the wage gap. In fact, many of them likely have, as bosses, paid more to male employees than female employees on average. Yet, they would rather perpetuate the victimization narrative that women everywhere are earning less simply because of their gender. 

This opens the door to greater government intervention in the workplace and for bureaucrats to micromanage the relationship between women and their employers. And it provides a political opportunity for their campaigns to signal concern for working women, whose votes they covet.

Ironically, policy ideas such as Harris’s plan could backfire on women in the workplace, leaving them with less flexibility and fewer opportunities.

Employers would be less likely to negotiate with female workers and offer non-financial forms of compensation such as paid time off because doing so would distort salary figures. Women could also be considered less desirable to hire, due to the legal exposure associated with failure to obtain government certification for equal pay, which could lead to fewer jobs for women. 

If lawmakers truly want to empower women, they should speak honestly about how the choices women make impact their earnings and result in the gender wage gap. Anything less underestimates women’s intelligence and undercuts our ability to advance.