Is there really more work for the government to do on the gender pay gap, Hillary? Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Is there really more work for the government to do on the gender pay gap, Hillary? Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

More than 11,000 people retweeted this comment from Hillary Clinton the other day: "20 years ago, women made 72 cents on the dollar to men. Today it's still just 77 cents. More work to do. ‪#EqualPay ‪#NoCeilings."

More and more people are pointing out how misleading the 77 cent figure is. Although it's used to justify cracking down on employers, nobody who has studied the issue believes that employer discrimination explains all or even most of the gap between male and female wages.

Correct for such factors as choice of occupation and hours worked, and the gap shrinks substantially. A 2009 report for the Labor Department estimated the unexplained gap between male and female pay at 5 percent to 7 percent, not 23 percent.

We could respond to those facts by widening our focus beyond employers. The 77 cent figure, we could say, is a big problem even if it doesn't result from workplace discrimination. Getting to 100 cents on the dollar, we might continue, will also require changing people's views so that more women go into male-dominated, well-paying occupations, or so that men and women split child-care duties equally.

That line of thinking makes more sense than trying to dream up new ways to sue companies. We -- I'm speaking of our society here, not necessarily our government -- probably should make further strides in this direction.

But there's no reason to expect or desire the sexes to ever have exactly the same preferences about the balance between work and family life, or about occupational choices. At some point well short of 100 percent, contrary to Clinton's implication, we'd have to conclude that we have no more work to do.

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.