Equalities watchdog blocks women-only board shortlists

25 July 2014 -


The Equalities and Human Rights Commission deems all-women illegal in landmark move

Jermaine Haughton

Employers who create female-only shortlists to fill positions in senior management and board rooms will have broken the law, according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

The organisation said female-only shortlists would constitute “unlawful sex discrimination” when asked by business secretary Vince Cable about the legality of the mechanism. 

Cable hoped the policy would be helpful in getting more women onto the boards of the UK’s biggest firms, in order to meet Lord Davies’ target of 25% on FTSE 350 boards by next year.

“The headhunting industry has been looking for reassurances on the legality of all-women shortlists,” Cable said. “That’s why I welcome the EHRC’s guidance, which has clarified this issue.”

However, the EHRC acknowledges a disparity in opportunities for women to progress to the top of the career ladder. Instead of backing female-only shortlists, the Commission provided some tips businesses can use to boost gender representation on boards, as well as announcing a second inquiry into FTSE 350 board member recruitment practices chaired by Commissioner Laura Carstensen. 

The previous EHRC inquiry found the appointment of women is being held back by selection processes which “favour candidates with similar characteristics to existing, largely male, board members”.

The findings of the Commission’s inquiry will be published in spring 2015 and used to produce best practice guidance. The Commission’s advice for companies, search firms and recruitment agencies to improve the representation of women on boards, includes:

  • Setting aspirational targets for increasing the number of women on boards within a particular timescale
  • Targeting networking opportunities for women
  • Providing mentoring and sponsor programmes, which assist in the development of female talent

More needs to be done to boost the gender balance of boardrooms, Carstensen says. “Research suggests that companies with diverse boards produce better performance and many companies recognise this,” Carstensen explained. “Equality is for everyone, and it is clear that there is still much more to be done to ensure that women have an equal opportunity to succeed on merit in gaining board positions.

“A lack of gender balance on boards is a detriment not only to women with the ability to hold such roles but also to businesses and the economy. In an ever more competitive and global economy, we cannot afford to be overlooking the talent of half of our population.”

For more thoughts on the modern workplace, download Women In Management and CMI’s report on improving the women in management pipeline here.

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