In a wide range of jobs, the pay gap between men and women has proved stubbornly difficult to bridge. Now, the Human Rights Commission has decided it is time for a new approach. It has formulated a draft Pay Equality Bill that would remove confidentiality from what men and women earn in the workplace. Employers would be required to let staff know the pay rates of colleagues doing equivalent work, and if a woman discovered she was being paid less, she could complain to a Labour Department inspector.

The Government has poured cold water on the proposal, saying existing laws already outlaw discrimination. Equally, said the Prime Minister, there was a danger of "unintended consequences and privacy issues". These are not trifling matters. Even many of the men who want the gender pay gap closed would be reluctant to see the details of their salaries opened to the scrutiny of work colleagues.

In some smaller workplaces, there is potential for this to become a source of friction. At its worst, it could even persuade some employers that the easiest course is simply to employ men. They may well think that they can do without the burden of proof of justifying why, for what ever reason, they pay a man more than a woman.

But Judy McGregor, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, maintains that revealing salaries in this manner would help women and their unions negotiate more effectively. According to the latest Quarterly Employment Survey, men in this country are paid on average $27.54 an hour, 14.4 per cent higher than the $24.07 that women are paid. New female graduates are paid an average $5000 less than male graduates. Many sectors, says Dr McGregor, use confidentiality agreements on pay as a way of under-valuing their female employees.

She concedes, however, that this legislation would not be a cure for "huge systemic issues". As such, the commission's approach seems to amount to tinkering around the edges, and coming up with an innovation that may well do as much harm as good. In reality, as Dr McGregor concedes, the issue is far more complex and involves myriad factors. Not one of these, obviously, is the former Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) chief executive Alasdair Thompson's idea that women are paid less in part because they take more sick days because of their periods.

But, despite years of study, no one has really put their finger on the reason for the pay gap. Critics of employers point to the stereotyping of women's capabilities. The unequal burden of child-rearing is also mentioned frequently. Yet these seem an inadequate answer. The obduracy of the problem seems the more unfathomable given the increasing number of female graduates. It could well be that, in applying for their first jobs, some women are not as assertive as men, or do not provide such tangible evidence of their potential value. The same characteristic may apply when they seek promotion or renegotiate their pay.

More broadly, this may point to women bringing a different attitude to the workplace. Scaling the corporate ladder may not be the sole focus it is to many men. They may be prepared, or feel the need, to work fewer hours and spend more time on non-work duties and obligations. In other words, they have a superior work-life balance to men who feel the necessity to put in long hours and continuous employment to climb to the top.

The reasons for the ongoing gap must remain the focus. The commission may well be impatient but actions that owe more to its frustration than cogent thought are apt to backfire. Then principle and reality could move even further apart.