Wal-Mart recruits a Googler, and it’s a trend

April 17, 2012, 6:16 PM UTC

Marissa Mayer Credit: Asa Mathat

The news that Wal-Mart has invited Google VP Marissa Mayer to join its board of directors signals a trend. Fortune 500 boards are looking hard to recruit social media experts. And their quest is bringing a lot of women to the directors’ table.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is on the Walt Disney board.

Clara Shih recently joined the board of Starbucks . The founder-CEO of hot startup Hearsay Social replaced Sandberg, who quit her directorship to focus on Facebook’s pending IPO.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s female execs are much-desired recruits. Emily White, who directs mobile partnerships for the social-media behemoth, joined the board of Lululemon –which is not yet a Fortune 500 company but on its way to be. White’s colleague, Katie Mitic, who is Facebook’s director of platform marketing, is on the board of eBay .

A Facebook alum, venture capitalist Ali Rosenthal of Greylock Partners, joined AutoNation’s board last year. Another prominent VC, Sonali De Rycker of Accel Partners in London, went on the board of IAC , Barry Diller’s media company.

Time Inc. CEO Laura Lang, who used to be the global head of digital marketing agency Digitas , became a director of apparel giant VF last fall…and now we have Mayer on the board of the world’s largest retailer.

Mayer, who oversees Google Local and Maps, joined the company in 1999, when she was a fresh Stanford grad and Google had fewer than 20 employees. At 36, Mayer is the youngest woman ever to make Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list. She ranks No. 38.

Spencer Stuart’s Jim Citrin did the search for the Wal-Mart directors, who are eager to help the company compete online, especially against Amazon.com

Considering all this interest in social media prowess, we have to wonder: Why are the boards of big companies zeroiing in on women, vs.men?

Juliet de Baubigny, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, thinks the trend isn’t just about killing two birds—directors’ desires for diversity and social media expertise—with one recruit. “Many of the businesses that you list have a significant number of female customers,” de Baubigny says. “So, having an up-and-coming woman is a reflection of their customer base.” De Baubigny, once a recruiter back in the first dot-com bubble, notes, “Emily White gives Lululemon someone who understands social media, search, commerce and mobile–and is a great reflection of their customer set. That’s a powerful combination.”

One current recruiter who is watching the trend with fascination is Bonnie Gwin of Heidrick & Struggles . She says that the only thing that boards may desire more right now is BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) experience–“with a lot of emphasis on China and Brazil.” Gwin, who is vice chairman and co-managing partner for Heidrick’s North American CEO & boards practice, adds, “Diversity is top of mind for boards. Gender, ethnicity, age and global diversity. Non-U.S. citizens or someone who has lived outside the U.S. for a long time are in demand.”

For more on women directors in tech, check out “Why Your Next Board Member Should be a Woman” by Kleiner Perkins partner Aileen Lee.