P&G rates an “A” for board diversity

May 5, 2011, 6:16 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

The takeaway was pretty discouraging this week when Fortune and recruiting giant Heidrick & Struggles co-hosted a discussion on women and boards.

The participants — members of the Fortune Most Powerful Women community convening in Washington, D.C. — came up with lots of reasons that “corporate boards get a D for diversity” (the title of my Postcard on Monday). Such as: the club-like culture of boards, the white male profile of hedge-fund activists, and the sense that women “clawed our way up to 15%,” as one prominent attorney said, and then settled in to advance no further.

Well, here’s one encouraging instance of board diversity done right: Procter & Gamble . I wasn’t aware of that company’s progress until Martha McGarry, a top lawyer at Skadden Arps, emailed me yesterday to say that she continued the conversation about boards with a couple of P&G women. Chief Legal Officer Deborah Platt Majoras and Maggie Wilderotter, a P&G director who is also CEO of Frontier Communications , pointed out to McGarry that five of Procter’s 11 directors are female.

And the company’s chief executives have  been on a mission.

Former CEO A.G. Lafley named three women to the board before he retired just over a year ago: WellPoint CEO Angela Braly, ADM Chief Pat Woertz, and Wilderotter.

Bob McDonald, Lafley’s successor, picked up on the trend and appointed two female directors. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman rejoined the board after losing the contest for governor of California last November. McDonald’s other addition is Susan Desmond-Hellmann, a doctor who left her post as president of product development at Genentech to become chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco.

No tokenism in this mighty lineup. Every one of these directors has been on Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women list.

And for what it’s worth in the diversity mission, Lafley installed one black male director who has a pristine reputation: American Express CEO Ken Chenault.

P.S. It’s worth noting that in the wake of the women new to P&G’s board, one male director stepped down amid scandal: Rajat Gupta. He’s the former McKinsey executive who, according to the SEC’s allegations, passed on information illegally to hedge fund boss Raj Rajaratnam in the Galleon Group insider trading case. While denying the SEC charges, Gupta voluntarily resigned from the P&G board effective March 1.