According to a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), while executive search firms are taking positive steps to get more women into top jobs, there are still barriers in the final stages of the recruitment process.

The report, produced by Cranfield School of Management and based on academic literature and interviews with 10 London headhunters, is the first in-depth study into the appointment process to corporate boards and the role of executive search firms. It follows the recent Davies Review, which called upon executive search firms to take on a more active role in increasing gender diversity on FTSE boards.

The report highlighted that while the initial stages of the recruitment process are fair, the men who hold the majority of seats on FTSE Boards tend to select new members who are a “fit” for the existing Board.

Baroness Prosser, deputy chair of EHRC, explained: “Research shows that diverse boards produce better performance. Many companies recognise this. We commissioned this report to support the efforts to improve the representation of women at board level.

“However, the often subjective way of making appointments ends up replicating existing boards rather than bringing in talented women who could bring real benefits to individual company performance and ultimately help Britain’s economic recovery.”

Dr Elena Doldor, Senior Research Fellow from the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders and lead author of the report commented:

“Our research shows 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.”

The headhunters interviewed for the report said that the Davies proposals had raised awareness among company chairmen about diversity, although not without a lot of “huffing and puffing”.