Government subsidies for companies adding under-qualified women to boards would be one way to encourage gender diversity, says Carolyn McCall, arguing that carrots rather than sticks should be used to improve female representation in the boardroom.

The chief executive of EasyJet said that UK groups struggled to find female candidates with enough experience of publicly listed companies for them to simply replace departing male directors. This meant boards seeking a higher proportion of female directors might have to temporarily expand.

“Boards need to take on women, and they might have to be an extra person on a board for a period of time until the person with non-plc experience gains the experience to be able to sit around that table at a plc,” said Ms McCall.

But she noted that this would mean added expense – and potential opprobrium for expanding the board. “I don’t know whether the government can do something where they can help companies take on people with non-plc experience by doing some kind of subsidy,” she said.

The idea has not been aired before in the public debate over diversity, although Ms McCall said she had discussed it with Lord Davies of Abersoch, who led a government-commissioned review of women on boards.

His report, published in February, set a 2015 target for FTSE 100 companies to have at least one woman director in every four, and urged FTSE 350 groups to set goals themselves.

Lord Davies did not call for quotas – a decision Ms McCall strongly backs. She also supports his focus on mentoring and shadowing schemes meant to help women working just below boardroom level to position themselves for promotion.

Since Lord Davies’ report, more than one-fifth of new appointments to FTSE 100 boards have been women, an increase from last year but short of the recommended rate.

While reports monitoring the progress of the recommendations could include new proposals for how to encourage companies – including incentives such as tax breaks – the hope is that the prospect of improving bottom-line performance through boardroom diversity is enticement enough.

Jonathan Day, a partner at advisory firm Heidrick & Struggles, said: “Why do you need a government subsidy to do the right thing? Numerous studies show that diversity of thought and diversity of experience lead to better decision-making.”

He added that, for big companies, directors’ salaries were “utterly irrelevant – they’re tiny rounding errors”, suggesting a subsidy merely covering the costs of an extra director would do little to influence corporations’ boardroom composition.

EasyJet’s 10-person board includes one female director in addition to Ms McCall: Adèle Anderson, former Europe chief financial officer for KPMG, was appointed in September.

Three women, including Ms McCall, are part of the 10-strong executive management team.

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