When you hear that women make "77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts," what comes to mind—besides anger? Probably you assume that means that, for every male salesman making $100,000, a woman doing the same job is making $77,000—a discrepancy owing to sex-based discrimination by men against women.

Believe it or not, that's not what the data show.

That 77-cent figure comes from a report on educational attainment, issued earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows that median monthly earnings in 2009, for those 18 and older, were $2,917 for women, $3,750 for men. Divide $2,917 by $3,750 and you get .7778—the basis of the figure. (As a statistics refresher, median means the midpoint of the data set, not the average.)

However, a separate report comparing women's to men's salaries for the same job shows the median woman earning 82 cents for the median man. Half the women in the report, whose work accounted for 61 different jobs, were making better than 82 cents on their male counterpart's dollar. More than a third made between 61 and 81 cents on the dollar. Several of the jobs with the worst pay gaps were managerial in nature or required higher education, yet the educational attainment report shows that women with advanced degrees in some fields make 90 percent of what men do. Overall, both reports show the pay gap varies significantly.

Does this mean employers in some types of work are more discriminatory than others? That's possible, but it's hard to conclude that the only factor is gender discrimination. For one thing, neither report distinguishes similar jobs in for-profit settings from those in nonprofit organizations, which almost always offer lower salaries for similar work, but may also entail less-demanding hours and better work-life balance. The reports are also limited to income, which means they don't factor in the kind of benefits offered and other factors that might make lower-paying jobs more attractive.

After poring over the numbers for a while, I was curious to see how my earnings compared, given that I hold a master's degree in religious studies and work for a nonprofit. According to the education report's chart showing average pretax earnings, based on education level (table 5, which doesn't include sex), I made less per month than both my master's degree- and bachelor's degree-holding peers. But is that because I'm a woman or a nonprofit employee? On the other hand, when compared to peers with degrees in liberal arts, I was earning more than both the median man and woman at both the bachelor's and advanced-degree levels.

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How well my earnings compare to others' is therefore complicated. And as a measure of financial welfare, it's incomplete given that none of these figures account for the value of benefits received. According to my employer, salary was only 73 percent of the total value of my compensation in 2009, given that I enjoy a pretty good benefits package. So, again, a straight salary-to-salary comparison may be leaving out a lot of key information regarding the actual welfare of working men and women.

More problematic than all these gaps in the data, however, is the way we typically use figures like salary to determine a person's well-being. A college economics professor once told our class that gross domestic product—"the GDP"—is not the economic health indicator it's often made out to be. Undergo a natural disaster in January that causes billions in dollars of recovery and repairs expenses later in the year, and your country's GDP will surge. But does a catastrophe-driven larger number really translate to better welfare?

Similarly, I'm not convinced that income is always such a good measure of well-being, for those who earn above a certain threshold. (Indeed, a recent study suggests that threshold is $75,000.) On my present salary, I can see as many concerts and buy as much beer and yarn as I like, while still giving a decent amount of my money away and chipping away at the debt racked up in my 20s. If I made a lot more money, I'd have to spend more time thinking about what to do with that money. But I'd rather spend my free time writing, cooking, traveling, and hanging out with those whom I love.

With all the things I want to do outside work, it is way more valuable for me to have fairly consistent hours than to make more money. Maybe, if you look at my salary and compare it to those of comparably educated men, I look like I'm not doing as well, but I doubt I'd want to trade places with any of them. The relative autonomy I enjoy and agency over my out-of-work time is worth vastly more to me.

Nor am I entirely alone: according to a recent Wall Street Journal piece, a growing number of single women are choosing less-demanding jobs so they can have more time to lives outside work. It's not that they're doing so because of kids or a husband; they just want to be able to run their errands, see an occasional movie, and meet up with friends. Undoubtedly they've taken pay cuts, but to them it's worth it.

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And that's why the unequal-pay claim is flawed. Not only is it based on data that don't entirely support the claim, but it doesn't account for women's agency in the disparity. Undoubtedly, real discrimination happens, which I don't mean to minimize. But it would be just as dishonest to say the pay gap owes completely to discrimination as it would to say there is no discrimination.

Before all we white-collar women get up in arms about the $.23 we supposedly lose compared to our male colleagues, we ought to more closely examine whether that gap exists and what our male peers might be sacrificing for higher salaries. It just might be their well-being. At the same time, we would do well to consider the real and more serious wage challenges faced by our sisters with less education, and the role we play in contributing to that.

Anna Broadway is a writer and web editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics.