Everyone knows there is a double-digit “gender pay gap” in Australia. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency, using Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, puts that gap at 17.1%. In September last year it was 17.5%, according to the agency.

“The gender pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s average weekly full-time equivalent earnings, expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings,” WGEA’s Clare Buttner explained to Crikey. “The gap is currently 17.1% and has hovered between 15% and 18% for the past two decades. We also know there are pay gaps in favour of men in every industry and in all roles, including in female-dominated industries.”

Even men and women at the same stage of their careers are paid wildly differently, with the WGEA reporting that the average salary for male graduates in 2012 (the latest year for which data was available) was $55,000, whereas for female graduates it was $50,000.

“While it is argued that the pay gap is caused by women who consciously choose not to pursue senior management and leadership roles due to caring responsibilities, research has shown that the pay gap exists from the time women first enter the workforce and applies to most types and levels of work. Having a degree also doesn’t prevent the pay gap, and graduate starting salaries for women are often less than those for men,” Buttner said.

An outrageous example of institutional sexism, right? Well, not exactly. Recalling what Mark Twain said about the three kinds of lies, Crikey took a closer look at the statistics. And it turns out the gender pay gap for male and female graduates performing the same work is much, much smaller.

To find that 10% disparity, the WGEA used data from Graduate Careers Australia, which collects information on starting salaries for recent graduates in a number of fields. The WGEA compared the average male graduate salary with the average female graduate salary, but GCA says this isn’t a fair comparison. It issued a statement disputing the government agency’s conclusions:

“The large $5000 pay gap favouring males observed at the overall level can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that males tend to be overrepresented in higher-paying fields such as engineering. In addition, some of the larger wage gaps are observed in fields with relatively low response numbers (e.g. dentistry, optometry) which could make them unreliable.”

GCA report author Bruce Guthrie told Crikey the WGEA had made some “mistaken assumptions” about the figures: “The gap between sexes is far smaller than they posited. The key issue they missed in terms of their assumptions were that the figures we presented did not take into account the different types of work people were doing … People in different areas can have different earnings, and sometimes you find also there can be differences in terms of choices made by males and females.”

Buttner countered that WGEA “did not misrepresent or change the data in any way”. “Pay gaps at the graduate level are harder to justify because some of the common factors that contribute to pay inequity, for example time out of the workforce for children, are unlikely to have had an impact on the lives of new graduates.”

Crikey took a closer look at GCA’s 2012 data and found that the average starting salary for male graduates is not actually much higher than that of female graduates in most fields. In fact, in the fields of computer science, earth sciences, engineering, pharmacy, physical sciences and social sciences, the average female starting salary was higher. And in agricultural science, biological science, education, humanities, medicine, psychology and veterinary science, there wasn’t much difference.

There was a big disparity in the fields of architecture and denistry in favour of men, but whether that is because men and women are paid differently for the same work or because men and women tend to go into different fields within that sector (e.g. dentists verses dental hygienists) is not made clear in the numbers. Overall, when Crikey crunched the numbers relating to each profession (i.e. stripping out unfair weighting due to more of one gender in a particular field), we found that male graduates are only paid 2.4% more than their female counterparts.

Guthrie says several years ago GCA released more granular salary figures, controlling for variables such as public sector versus private sector employment, location and specific roles within an organisation. The result was an even smaller gender pay gap, of 1-2%. “[Men and women] work side-by-side in larger organisations, they would soon know if the guy next to them were making more or less than they were. Recruiters can’t be seen to be paying less for females than for males.”

While it does not seem to be true that male graduates are paid much more than female graduates for the same work, later in their careers men in general do earn more than women. Why? It may not be as much a “gender gap” as a professional gap, with Buttner saying women often choose to go into fields that are less well paid.

“Within industries there are several factors that can affect the gender pay gap, such as an industry’s occupational structure and how pay is set within the industry. Within the healthcare and social assistance industry, for instance, women account for nearly three-quarters of the industry’s full-time workforce but still earn less than men, as there are a higher share of men (17%) working in the higher-paying jobs in this industry than women (3%),” she said.

“Women are predominantly employed in caring roles, such as residential care services, which have historically been undervalued and underpaid, while the vast majority of surgeons are men, with male doctors earning more than female doctors overall.”

And the biggest divergence in salaries occurs if women step off the career track, even temporarily, to have and raise children.

“Women also continue to do most of the unpaid caring in society, and while the gender pay gap affects women throughout their entire working lives, it is during the years when women are balancing paid work with unpaid caring responsibilities that the gap widens considerably,” Buttner said. “This also has an impact on the number of women in leadership positions, as women are more likely than men to work part-time or flexibly for caring reasons and there are very few flexible senior leadership roles.”

So while a gender pay gap does exist in Australia, it does not seem to be the case that women are paid much less simply because of their gender. Choosing lower-paid careers, a temporary break in earnings to raise children and a need for flexible or part-time working hours all hurt women’s earning potential.