Today, the Equal Pay Act becomes middle aged.

Alison Fraser on Line Item Veto

This law made it unlawful to pay women lower wages based on sex. It was passed in the early 1960s, a time when there were far fewer women in the workforce. Today they make up nearly half of the workforce.

Given the 50th anniversary of this law, no doubt much will be made of the so called “wage gap.” You know—that statistic that says women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. As my colleague Romina Boccia writes:

This simplistic statistic purports the myth that women as a group experience widespread discrimination in the workplace and as a result earn lower wages and salaries. It fails to account for the different choices men and women make regarding their professional and family lives.

In other words, the devil is in the details. Since the ‘60s, not only have women entered the workplace in droves; they have outpaced men in educational attainment. And they have had the opportunity to make lots of choices along the way.

I’m one of those women. I have left the workforce and had flexible work hours. Though my three children have all left the nest, it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was making the choice to take precious time off when each of my kids was born. At one point, I decided to take a great part-time job so I could spend more time with them when they were younger. But that meant less time in the workforce than coworkers—male and female—who concentrated on building their skills and their careers. When I went back into the workplace full time, I simply had less experience.

As colleagues Emily Goff and James Sherk wrote:

Women are more likely than men to work in industries with more flexible schedules. Women are also more likely to spend time outside the labor force to care for children. These choices have benefits, but they also reduce pay—for both men and women. When economists control for such factors, they find the gender gap largely disappears.

With many statistics, things are not always as simple as they seem. For example, more women than ever are “Breadwinner Moms”—i.e., those who bring home the largest paychecks for their families. How far things have come. This is seemingly good news for the married Breadwinner Moms, whose families earn well over the national average for families with children. But over 60 percent of Breadwinner Moms are single moms who tend to earn less and be less educated than their married counterparts.

Some will no doubt use the birthday of the Equal Pay Act to renew calls for the Paycheck Protection Act. But that would be misguided. Boccia writes that this measure

would backfire on women by encouraging more rigid pay structures, which would raise the barriers to greater flexibility in the workplace that are so important for working moms.

Today I have the privilege to work with many outstanding young women like Romina and Emily. I would say to them: The world can be yours, so study hard and work hard. Make your own choices for family and career along the way that suit you best. And never look back.

Just don’t look to the government to make things “fair.” It never works out that way.