Was Facebook's June 25 announcement that its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, would be joining its board of directors a heartfelt attempt to diversify its previously all-male board? Or, was it just a PR move to deflect the barrage of criticism inflicted after its botched IPO?
Sandberg's appointment comes amid intensified efforts to increase the number of women on American corporate boards, whose ranks have grown fairly slowly for years, says The Wall Street Journal. Women accounted for about 16% of directorships at Fortune 500 companies last year, according to Catalyst, a group that researches women's issues, reported the Journal.
“Sheryl has been my partner in running Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in a June 25 statement. “Her understanding of our mission and long-term opportunity, and her experience both at Facebook and on public company boards makes her a natural fit for our board.”
The timing of the move has stirred up discussion that Sandberg's "natural fit" is a PR move as much as it is a strategic business move. "Had Facebook’s public debut been a soaring success, Zuckerberg might well have been O.K. with being among the almost 20% of the country’s largest companies that still have no women on their boards," reported Bloomberg Businessweek.
The appointment also comes at a time when Facebook continues to draw criticism over changes to its site—most recently with the company replacing e-mails users picked to display on their profile pages with an (at)facebook.com address.
Sandberg's board appointment also coincides with the publication of a book that characterizes Facebook's early history as something of a frat-like boys club, according to Bloomberg. "The Boy Kings," by early Facebook employee Katherine Losse, describes Mr. Zuckerberg's introduction of Ms. Sandberg to fellow staffers in 2008 as a painfully awkward scenario, with the CEO commenting on the quality of her skin.
Regardless of the reasons that led to her appointment, it is both a smart PR and business move—companies with women on their boards consistently perform better than those without them—about 43% better in shareholder returns if they have three or more female directors, according Catalyst. Sandberg's high-profile appointment has quelled many critics of Facebook for not being inclusionary—for now.
Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg