UK - The appointment of women to FTSE 350 non-executive director roles is being held back by selection processes that favour candidates with similar characteristics to existing male-dominated board members, according to a new report published today by the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The report says many chairmen and headhunting firms recognise that gender diversity should be increased at board level, with recruiters introducing a voluntary code of conduct to ensure more women make the long lists. 

However, when it comes to short-listing and appointment, successful candidates tended to be those perceived as fitting in with the values, norms and behaviours of existing board members - largely men.

The research showed how the selection of candidates based on fit and previous board experience, rather than competencies, was self-perpetuating.

It worked against women who had fewer opportunities to gain previous board level experience and limited the ability of company chairmen to broaden the range of skills and experience of their boards. 

As well as identifying examples of good practice at executive search firms, the report concluded that a more transparent, professional and rigorous approach to the selection process would allow chairs and search agencies to appoint more female candidates and encourage more women to consider applying for roles as non-execs. 

Elena Doldor, senior research fellow from the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders and lead author of the report, said the research showed recruitment firms were "willing to play a part" in increasing board diversity and that a number of good practices were already in place. 

"However, we noticed that search firms tend to focus their diversity initiatives on the first stages of the appointment process. In the later stages of the process, which entails short-listing and interviewing, there needs to be more effort from headhunters and chairmen to ensure that selection practices remain inclusive. 

"It is at these later stages of the process that the focus appears to inadvertently shift from candidates' actual competencies to the slippery notion of fit," she added.

"Despite increased awareness of the need to diversify boards, there are still default preferences for candidates with certain backgrounds."

The report revealed a lack of consensus among search firms when it came to what qualities are sought in board candidates beyond their experience.  This lack of clarity left room for shifting criteria and subjective judgements during the appointment process.

But interviews with senior consultants at 10 leading executive search firms in London, all signatories to the voluntary search code, revealed that search firms were beginning to challenge chairmen and nomination committees when defining briefs. 

In particular, this included giving more importance to underlying competencies than their fit with existing board members.

Latest figures by Cranfield School of Management showed that within FTSE 100 companies, women now accounted for 16% per cent of all directorships, while only nine companies still had all male boards. Its most recent female FTSE report noted that if current momentum was maintained, female FTSE 100 board representation could reach a record 26.7% by 2015, slightly higher than the recommended minimum 25% set out in the Davies Report from February 2011.