More women in technology jobs? If only it were true

Troels Graugaard | E+ | Getty Images

If only it were true.

From the moment I saw the headlines, they didn't pass the smell test: "More than half of tech hires this year are women." As someone who's spent most of the last 15 years covering the tech industry in one form or another, I know how drastically the workforce skews male. So for the trend to have changed in a year? It would be a watershed event.

The headlines seemed to be based on data...and from a great source: the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was my first red flag, though. Government data is plentiful, and really easy to misinterpret by those of us who aren't used to digging into it. And, well, we in the tech press tend to fall into that category.

So I waded into the data, carefully. What did I find? There's that line the character Inigo Montoya says in "The Princess Bride": "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." In this case, the data does not say what they think it says.

The original report on tech hiring mostly women this year came from Dice, a respected tech employment site. It summarized the data in this graphic.

The numbers Dice used come from a category called "Computer Systems Design and Related Services." The problem with that is, "Computer Systems Design and Related Services" is not an occupational category at all. Occupational categories are listed at the bottom of this Bureau of Labor Statistics release.

No, "Computer Systems Design and Related Services" is an industry category, as the census site explains here.

What kinds of firms are in that category? Mostly the type that do contract information technology work.

So what the data is really saying is that a certain TYPE of business that falls under the category "Computer Systems Design and Related Services" happened to hire more women than men this year, in a slow year for hiring.

That doesn't mean the women hired by these companies were "in tech" by any means. They could have been in sales, in public relations, in customer service. They probably were. The majority of employees in firms in this category aren't technical.

A Bureau of Labor statistics spokesman confirmed that there is no way to determine whether women are making gains in tech employment by looking at the Computer Systems Design and Related Services industry category.

Unfortunately, quite a few outlets picked up the Dice report and are repeating the idea that tech has suddenly (if temporarily) solved its gender imbalance problem. I don't have the data either way, but my gut—and my eyes—tell me that's probably not anywhere near the case.

By CNBC's Jonathan Fortt. Follow him on Twitter @jonfortt

Contact Commentary

  • CNBC will consider commentary on a variety of topics, including investing, Wall Street, politics, international affairs, the Federal Reserve, health care, technology, careers, entertainment and more. We want a variety of viewpoints – especially those that are different from something you’ve read on CNBC.com.

    Send op-ed pitches to commentary@cnbc.com. Put the words OP-ED in the subject. Articles should be between 600 and 700 words. All submissions must be exclusive to CNBC.com. Please also include a 1-2 sentence bio of the author and a Twitter handle for the author or company. Please remember these are opinions and should be in your own voice, not in the voice of your PR person or in-house legal consultant!

    We apologize that due to the volume of submissions, we may not be able to respond to every email. If we have not responded within 5 business days, please feel free to submit the op-ed to another publication.

    Get all the latest commentary on Twitter.com @CNBCopinion.

    Who is the commentary editor?
    Cindy Perman is the commentary editor for CNBC.com. She has worked in online news for more than a decade. She also writes the "There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere" blog and is the author of the book “New York Curiosities” (2013, 2nd edition). Follow her on Twitter @CindyPerman.