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Women should occupy at least a quarter of jobs on the boards of the UK’s top companies within four years, suggests a report issued by the government.

But Lord Davies of Abersoch, a former trade minister who led the review, stopped short of introducing quotas to force companies to hire more female executives.

Women make up 46 percent of the active population in the UK but only 12.5 percent of positions on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. Eighteen FTSE 100 companies and almost half of FTSE 250 companies have no female directors. Yet 60 percent of university graduates are women.

In his report Davies said that “radical change is needed in the mindset of the business community” with regards to gender equality, adding:

“This is not just about aiming for a specific figure and is not just about promoting equal opportunities but it is about improving business performance. There is growing evidence to show that diverse boards are better boards, delivering financial out-performance and stock market growth.”

Davies suggests that within six months, companies should set their own targets for boosting female board representation and then either achieve them or explain why they failed to. Those targets should be set for 2013 and 2015, he added.

The report goes on to say that if these voluntary targets were unsuccessful, then quotas should be considered as an alternative.

Norway agreed to introduce a 40 percent quota of female directors of listed companies in 2003. Since then the rate of female representation on boards has shot up from 6.8 percent to around the 40 percent required by the quota. France and Spain have launched similar initiatives. Supporters of the quota system say voluntary targets are ineffective and often go ignored.

But many in the business sector are keen to avoid government-imposed quotas, arguing that they would be too inflexible and would not reflect the different circumstances of individual companies.

The report also encourages investors to take into consideration gender equality when re-appointing board members and urges head-hunting firms to draw up a voluntary code of practice to address gender diversity.

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