The lead Conservative MEP on equality issues today poured scorn on a claim by the European Commission that its own actions were responsible for putting more women in top company boardrooms.

London MEP Marina Yannakoudakis was responding to a press release from the Commission heralding figures showing an increase in the proportion of female directors across the EU  from 13.7% to 15.8% in the 12 months to January 2012.

The release was headlined “Regulatory pressure gets the ball rolling” and attempted to claim the improvement was down to a proposal which the European Commission adopted on 14 November 2012 recommending a voluntary 40% objective for women on boards.

Mrs Yannakoudakis, Conservative spokesman in the European Parliament on women’s rights, said: “The claim is breathtaking. This continued improvement in the number of women in the boardroom is nothing to do with the Commission or the EU and everything to do with companies doing the right thing voluntarily. They are increasingly recognising the valuable contribution women bring to the top tiers of business, encouraging their progress and promoting them to board level.

“The figures are part of an ongoing trend of increasing representation which has been brought about voluntarily.”

Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding today presented the figures at the World Economic Forum in Davos and crowed: “The proof is in the pudding: regulatory pressure works.”

Mrs Yannakoudakis, however,  pointed out that in fact Commissioner Reding had to accept the voluntary-quota proposal last year only after it became clear she did not have sufficient support in the commission for full-blown legislation to compel companies to create more female directors.

She said: “Ms Reding’s neck is 100 per cent brass. To credit the quota proposals for these increases, when they have been in place less than two months and have no force whatsoever, is preposterous.

“One of the biggest increases has been the UK – nearly a full per centage point ahead of the EU average – and ours happens to be a country where sensible business leaders have persistently and publicly rejected any need for quotas.

“These figures actually show the very opposite of what the Commission claims – that the voluntary approach works.”