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Lately the make-up of Silicon Valley’s workforce has come under intense scrutiny.

Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins turned a spotlight on workplace practices in the tech sector. Although Pao lost her case, it underscored the reputation of Silicon Valley as a place where women and minorities are underrepresented and seldom advance into senior leadership spots.

Newly-released figures support that image. Take a look at recent percentages of women at top tech companies, from fortune.com:

Airbnb (47.5%); eBay (41.9%); LinkedIn (38.1%); HP (33.1%); Facebook (28.8%); Google (27.8%); Cisco (25.6%); Microsoft (24.3%); Intel (23.8%)

Not surprisingly, there’s been a clamor to reform the “Silicon Valley Boy’s Club,” and top leaders in the tech sector have recently announced ambitious initiatives to promote, and nurture more female talent.

But the case for diversity isn’t only about righting a wrong. Gender parity is a business imperative.

An article in this week’s New York Times quoted John Kurtz, global head of diversity and inclusion at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, listing four “business case” arguments for diversity:

  • Attracting the best talent.
  • Creating a work force diverse enough to solve complex problems.
  • Having employees who reflect customers’ backgrounds.
  • Realizing that other companies want to work with companies that are diverse.

I would argue there’s another compelling business case for gender diversity. It’s not just about attracting but keeping the best talent. Let’s call it “the role model effect.”

Research shows that new female CEOs not just in technology, but across sectors, tend to come from the outside far more than new male CEOs. The robust internal pipeline that supports rising male talent does not exist for women.

Experts say having top female leaders at the top of an organization affects the attitudes and ambitions of the women coming up behind them. Female leaders play a key role in mentoring and sponsoring younger women.

When senior female figures are few and far between, the development and support of in-house talent suffers. The pipeline leaks.

Studies reveal one of the most common reasons women drop out or don’t aim for higher positions is because they don’t see anyone like them at the top. “When you look at the C-suite, do you see anyone there who looks like you?” asks Liz Mulligan-Ferry, director of research at non-profit Catalyst, which supports inclusive workplaces for women.

Or as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

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