March 6, 2013 11:40 pm

Facebook appoints second female director

Facebook has appointed its second female director, cancer researcher Susan Desmond-Hellmann, in its latest attempt to diversify its board.

Ms Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco and a former president at Genentech, is the ninth member of a board that has been dominated by Silicon Valley insiders and investors. They include venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and Netflix chief Reed Hastings, as well as Erskine Bowles, the president of the University of North Carolina.

Facebook said last year that it would look to broaden its board after going public and Ms Desmond-Hellman, a serving director of Procter & Gamble, is a new addition.

As Genentech’s president of product development, she led clinical research and business development, releasing several cancer medicines during her 14 years with the biotech giant.

“I’ve always been drawn to organisations that do groundbreaking work,” said Ms Desmond-Hellmann in a statement. “Facebook has an ambitious mission and long-term vision of innovation that is transforming how people connect with one another. I’m proud to be part of a company that is serving such an important purpose in the world.”

The appointment of Ms Desmond-Hellmann comes a week before Facebook’s first female director and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, releases her book on women and leadership, Lean In.

Even before its publication, Ms Sandberg’s book, which she has described as a “sort of feminist manifesto”, has prompted fierce debate about why there are not more women in powerful places – and whether as a wealthy and well-supported woman, she is well placed to ask such questions.

“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Ms Sandberg writes in the book. This week, she launched LeanIn.org, an online community, to help mobilise people behind her cause, which some have seen as a prelude to a future career in politics.

“By talking openly about the challenges that we all face in the workplace and at home, we can work towards solutions together,” Ms Sandberg wrote in a blog post on Tuesday introducing the new site, which is underpinned by Facebook’s technology. “Together, we can create a world where everyone – women and men, girls and boys – has true choice and equal opportunity to follow his or her dreams.”

However, some reviewers have been hostile to Ms Sandberg, including a Washington Post column last month, which branded the venture a “vanity project” that is “simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line”.

This criticism has, in turn, met its own backlash from those who see Ms Sandberg as a much-needed champion of working mothers and feminism in the business world.

Before Ms Sandberg joined the board last June, Facebook had received criticism from some investors and campaigners for its lack of women in the boardroom, despite more than half of the social network’s members being women. But corporate governance experts have welcomed Facebook’s latest move.

“Calpers views board diversity as protection against the group think which can pose risk in any business, and tech companies are not immune,” said Anne Simpson, director for corporate governance at the California public employees’ pension fund. “A governance upgrade can only be good for the company’s long-term challenges.”

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