Plans to introduce a mandatory quota for the number of women on boards at EU companies were dealt a severe blow yesterday (October 23rd) after lawyers raised concerns over the legal viability of the proposals.

Under the plans, put forward by Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, publicly traded companies in the EU would have to ensure that at least 40 per cent of their board members were women by 2020.

With the aim of increasing the diversity of employment in the highest echelons of EU companies, the proposals would see any firm failing to meet the quota subject to possible sanctions and fines.

However, the introduction of a mandatory quota has been a highly divisive issue among the union’s 26 member nations, with many, including the UK, preferring voluntary targets and other means to encourage firms to create a better gender balance in the boardroom.

And following a long debate yesterday EU commissioners failed to agree on the details of the draft legislation after the European Commission’s legal service warned that a binding quota for women may be illegal under current EU treaties.

This meant that a potential vote on the issue, that would have taken place following the debate, was postponed.

Nevertheless, yesterday’s events do not necessarily spell the end of EU attempts to increase gender diversity in company boardrooms, with Jose Manuel Barroso, the commission president, asking Ms Reding to resubmit her proposals in mid-November.

“We’ve been fighting now for 100 years,” Ms Reding said. “One or two weeks now doesn’t make a difference.”

But it is likely that any future proposals will have to scrap the idea of introducing a mandatory quota.

Speaking to the Financial Times, an EU official said under the outlines of the new plan the 40 per cent quota would be an objective for companies to meet, not a legally binding obligation.