Following the news that Lord Davies is set to spearhead a new inquiry into why there are so few women in top positions in business, ministers have said that half of all new appointments to the boards of public bodies should be women by 2015. Audrey Williams, head of discrimination law at international law firm Eversheds, comments:

“There are limits to what can be done, legally, to increase the proportion of women on boards. Unlike the position in some other European countries, such as Spain and Germany, fixed quotas are not presently permitted by UK equality laws. Labour’s Equality Act contains new rules that purport to give employers greater scope to select from equally qualified job candidates on the basis of their sex.

But although the coalition has said the majority of the Act’s provisions will take effect in October this year, as originally planned, it is notable that there is no mention of the controversial new positive action rules in guidance published by the Government Equalities Office.

All the signs are that the coalition has decided they should be held back, particularly as the Conservatives voiced concerns about the provisions during parliamentary debates and indicated, pre-election, that they would avoid implementing them should they come to power.

“It is not just in the UK that the proportion of women on boards remains stubbornly low. Last month, the European Commission warned companies across Europe that if they do not improve the gender balance on their boards, EU-wide legislation may be introduced to force the pace of change, possibly including compulsory fixed quotas. Whether this would also cover public bodies is unclear. Even if it doesn’t, the threat to force legislation through should be taken seriously.

“Although any new regulations would be a few years down the line, if fixed quotas are introduced, then the demand for top level female talent will increase across Europe. Businesses and public bodies alike need to take a close look at their talent development and retention programmes now to ensure they are doing enough to nurture the careers of those women who could be the directors of the future.”