It's an argument unlikely to win many friends among gender equality campaigners, but men earn more money than women not because they are inherently favoured in the workplace but because they work longer hours, put in the overtime, go out of their way to seek higher pay and promotion and don't stop working to have families.
The Should We Mind the Gap? research by the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs also argues that employers, managers and, crucially, legislators should stop worrying about the gender pay gap and just get on with the day-to-day challenges of management.
Rather than improving the lot of women, equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation may in fact be counter-productive, the research by Professor John Shackleton, dean of the University of East London Business School, has suggested.
In fact, for men and women aged between 22 and 29 – generally before family-raising issues come into play – the average full-time pay gap is now less than one per cent, he said.
Men, his research found, tended to work longer hours and put in more overtime than women, with twice as many male as female managers working more than 48 hours a week.
But men also had a greater chance than women of losing their jobs and of suffering serious injury at work.
Men tended actively to seek higher pay and career success, while women were more likely to seek job satisfaction, even if it meant working for a lower salary.
Crucially, while two thirds of women planned to take a career break at some point, fewer than an eighth of men said they intended to do so.
Of the top 25 ideal employers for women, 12 were in relatively low-paid public or voluntary sector, against just four for men, the research also pointed out.
What's more, according to Shackleton, proposals by the UK government to introduce compulsory pay audits, give greater subsidies to childcare, use government procurement to support equal pay drives and increase flexible working (see below) were unlikely to narrow the gap significantly.
While other pay gaps – ethnic, disability, religious, sexual orientation and so on – did also clearly exist, these tended to be more unpredictable in where, how and why they formed and how they narrowed or widened, making it virtually impossible to achieve a effective and consistent public policy, the research added.
"The widespread belief that the gender pay gap is a reflection of deep rooted discrimination by employers is ill-informed and an unhelpful contribution to the debate," said Professor Shackleton.
"The pay gap is falling but is also a reflection of individuals' lifestyle preferences. Government can't regulate or legislate these away – and shouldn't try to," he added.
Philip Booth, editorial director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said the research showed the need to repeal legislation that purported to promote equality in the workplace.
"In the last decade, in the name of promoting equality, we have had a huge increase in the burden placed upon employers," he said.
"This can often harm the very people it is intended to help. It seems to be individual choices and not systematic discrimination that determine pay and conditions," he added.
Reports yesterday suggested that the UK government may already be planning to put on hold an extension of the right by workers to request to work flexibly.
Currently only an option for parents of children aged six and under, it had planned to extend this right from April next year to parents of children aged up to 16 years old.
But equality campaigners have argued the IEA research has simply highlighted the fact that the workplace remains geared towards men and led by male attitudes.
If experienced, valuable women feel they have no option but to step off the career ladder if they want to have a family, that is a problem with how work and workplaces are structured and managed rather than the women themselves, the equality group the Fawcett Society has argued.
The continuing pay gap was the result of a "motherhood penalty" and outdated perceptions of female roles, argued campaigns officer Kat Banyard in The Times newspaper.
"The claim that sex discrimination is not a cause of the pay gap is unsubstantiated and sends a misleading message. Government research proves that up to 40 per cent is based on discrimination and prejudice against the value of women's work," she said.
"Women caring for children are often forced to take on low-paying or part-time jobs. That's not a free choice," she added.