The stubbornly low number of female computer science students in the United States has generated a pile of academic studies, ample hand-wringing and a wide-ranging discussion in tech and education circles about what can be done to boost the number of women choosing computing careers.
All of which raises a fair question: What difference does it make?
It turns out it makes a huge difference. The dearth of women in computing has the potential to slow the U.S. economy, which needs more students in the pipeline to feed its need for more programmers. It harms women by excluding them from some of the best jobs in the country. And it damages U.S. companies, which studies show would benefit from more diverse teams.
Quite a trifecta.
"Today, 21/2 billion people are connected to the Internet," said David Culler, chairman of the University of California-Berkeley's Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department. "There are more cellphone users than toothbrush users. You look at how intrinsic information technology is to all aspects of society and all aspects of modern life. Would you want any demographic group to be left out of shaping something that is so important to our future?"
The damage starts with a problem that is already being confronted by the tech industry and other companies that rely on computing talent (which means practically all of them): The economy is creating far more computing jobs than U.S. schools are creating computer science graduates.
Based on current trends, U.S. universities will produce about 400,000 computer scientists between 2010 and 2020, a decade during which 1.4 million U.S. computing jobs will open up, leaving a gap of about 1 million computing jobs. Together those 1 million jobs would pay $500 billion in wages, according to Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org, a nonprofit working to encourage computer science education in K-12 schools.
Without U.S. workers to fill those jobs, employers will face three choices: export the work, import the workers or leave the positions empty.
But where some see a problem, people like Jocelyn Goldfein see a historic opportunity.
Given that women make up not even one-fifth of computer science graduates, she figures, why not turn to the great untapped bench to pick up the slack, the way women did by moving into factory jobs during World War II? Why not begin to encourage women to pursue lucrative and plentiful jobs as programmers, systems analysts, information systems managers and the like?
"I really think this is kind of a Rosie the Riveter moment," said Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook.
The shortage is already evident in Silicon Valley, where companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and others provide big pay and perks to stock their companies with top software engineering talent.
Kimber Lockhart, a senior director of engineering at cloud storage and collaboration company Box, said she spends most of her time working to recruit new talent and to hang on to the talent the company has.
"It's extremely hard to hire well-qualified engineers," she said. "And if we could get anybody else in the pipeline, that could make it easier. If that's women, great."
Encouraging women to fill those unfilled jobs would have the added benefit of righting a wrong that has persisted for decades. When women are excluded, even unintentionally, from the computing field, they miss out on lucrative tech careers.
Right now, four of the 20 top-paying jobs for women are in computing, a broad field in which only about one-quarter of workers are female. The best tech jobs for women are positions such as computer programmer, software developer, information systems manager and systems analyst, with median pay for women ranging from about $60,000 to about $80,000. The figures are higher for men, ranging from about $71,000 to about $90,000.
Contrast that with the teaching profession, where more than three-quarters of public school teachers are female and where median pay for women is about $48,000 in elementary schools and about $51,000 in high schools. Or consider nursing, where about 90 percent of registered nurses are female and where median pay for women is about $56,000.
Yes, computing offers higher pay than fields dominated by women, but the advantages go beyond that.
"They're highly paid, highly flexible jobs," said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a computer scientist who has boosted female CS enrollment to 43 percent at the school. "You can do computer science with pretty much anything you're passionate about. I just don't think that it's very good that a large segment of our population doesn't have access to those jobs."
Beyond potential six-figure salaries, stock-option packages and flexibility, women are missing out on a field that many find incredibly fulfilling.
And it's not just the women who are missing out. The lack of female computer scientists is also bad for the companies who miss out on the chance to hire them into tech roles.
Sandy Jen, who co-founded Web messaging company Meebo and sold it to Google in 2012 for a reported $100 million, likes to point to research that shows companies with women in leadership positions offer investors and shareholders better returns than those without. And, she said, diverse teams are definitely a competitive advantage.
"Homogeneous people think the same way," she said. "There's not a lot of cross-pollination of ideas. Whether you're a woman, a man, short, tall, black, white, Asian, whatever, everybody has a different perspective, and the more you mix it up, it's just better."
Just better, as in the case of early voice-recognition systems, which UCLA senior researcher Jane Margolis likes to cite as the classic case of single-sex design obliviousness. Because the systems were designed and trained primarily by men, they had trouble recognizing female voices. The problem still persists, judging by women's complaints about trying to get automobile voice command systems to listen to them. Likewise, early video conference technology, which focused on the speaker, often had trouble finding women in the room because of the pitch of their voices, Margolis writes in Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, which she co-authored. Women, Margolis points out, were neither seen nor heard.
Denise Gammal, who has been studying the effects of diverse teams for the Borg Institute, bolsters Jen's argument that diverse companies do better by pointing to reams of research by universities from London to Chicago to make the point that companies with diverse teams do better financially.
"Increasingly, companies are realizing this isn't about corporate social responsibility," she says. "It's becoming a business imperative."
The sort of imperative that cries out for a movement — maybe this time one led not by Rosie the Riveter, but by Peggy the Programmer.