Push To Boost Number Of Women In Boardrooms
Ministers have started a process they hope will pave the way for all-women short lists in business for the first time.
Sky News has seen a letter sent to the Government's equality body asking it to rule on whether the practice could be legally applied when companies are recruiting to their boards.
It asks the Equality and Human Rights Commission to provide guidance on the matter.
"This should help make the recruitment process easier for companies and executive search firms," writes Jenny Willott, the equalities minister.
"In turn, it could also help enable businesses to increase gender diversity on their boards and could be vital in helping us achieve the 25% target for women on boards of FTSE 100 companies by 2015."
She told Sky News that business was missing out on female talent by failing to promote enough high-flying women to the top of their companies.
The latest move is part of an effort to drive up the number of women on boards.
Progress has been made with the FTSE 100 with the proportion of female board members rising from 12.5% to 20.7% - but that still leaves women outnumbered by four to one.
And just two of the 100 have female chairs. One company - Glencore Xstrata - has no women at all.
The situation is bad among chief executives with only five of the 100 top companies led by a woman, and one of them - Burberry's Angela Ahrendts - soon to step down.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, supports radical action in this area because it is thought that more diverse boards tend to result in better company performance.
But the Government has tended to support voluntary means over any type of quota. If all-women short lists were to happen they would be a tool that companies could choose to use.
Top female executives at an event to match them up with FTSE 100 chairs were wary about the idea.
Beatriz Butsana-Sita, managing director of global telecom markets for BT, said she would never want to feel that she was given a job because of a target or quota.
Ann Cormak, director international of Rolls Royce, said she found the idea of all-women short lists "constrictive" and would prefer decisions to be based purely on talent.
And Laura Frith, vice president of global talent at the Intercontinental Hotel Group, agreed that it ought to be only about merit.
All women did feel, however, that more could be done.
A survey of 46 leading business figures - including 16 FTSE chairs and 30 top female executives - found that all believed that balanced boards were best for a company. But they felt more action was needed.
Most of those questioned thought their companies were not doing enough - with the majority of chairmen saying the 2015 25% target was likely to be missed.