Equality commission says all-female shortlists are illegal

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Guidance released by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has clarified that recruiters and employers deliberately drawing up all-female shortlists is illegal.

The Appointments to Boards and Equality Law paper sets the "equality law framework within which appointments to boards must be made." It states that all board level roles must be filled on merit, "demonstrated through fair and transparent criteria and procedures".

It also highlights areas where employers can take positive steps to support women onto company boards. These include the creation of female networks and setting aspirational targets for the number of women on boards within defined timeframes.

The paper also gives conditions positive action on gender equality must comply with to be legal under the Equality Act 2010. Action must be proportionate to the nature of the barriers faced by women and the number of vacancies available.

EHRC commissioner Laura Carstensen said the main aim of the report is 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," she said. "In an ever more competitive and global economy, we cannot afford to be overlooking the talent of half of our population.”

Business secretary Vince Cable welcomed the clarification on issues such as all-female shortlists.

"This will really help our top businesses in what has been a bit of a legal grey area in the past," he said. "It confirms it is good and accepted practice for companies to set ambitious, aspirational targets to increase the number of women on their boards."

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