Compulsion and quotas can never be the way to increase female representation in the boardrooms of Europe, MEPs were cautioned today.

Conservative MEP Marina Yannakoudakis said such a move – as advocated by Equality Commissioner Viviane Reding – would be bad for business and bad for women.

She was speaking at a European Parliament hearing which she organised on quotas, during which a panel of leading businesswomen derided quotas as belittling to women.

The London MEP said: “A debate on women in boardrooms was held this morning in the Women’s Rights Committee, and I again wondered how many of my colleagues from other political parties had actually worked in business and industry, and how some of the amendments proposed to the current draft legislation came to be on the table.”

She said that as Conservative spokesman on equality and as a former businesswoman herself, she often despaired at the lack of real-life experience amongst some politicians.

Mrs Yannakoudakis told the hearing: “We all agree that we need more women on boards; indeed boards with greater diversity are stronger and far more likely to succeed. But quotas are bad for women and bad for business.

“Last Summer, Commissioner Reding presented draft legislation which stipulated a quota that at least 40% of the under-represented sex must sit on the non-executive board of a listed company.

 “We know that behind closed doors, she faced huge opposition to her draft legislation proposal from individual Commissioners, as well as many influential Member States.

 “It was the UK who led the opposition; and our position to this day, along with 8 other Member States, is that we prefer voluntary measures to encourage more female business leaders.

 “I am a firm believer that you cannot legislate your way into promoting women, and even if you could it is not an area the EU should be interfering and meddling in.”

She said that when such legally-enforceable quotas were introduced in Norway, the result was an increase in non-executive women board members – the so-called Golden Skirts effect.

The hearing heard evidence from a panel of high-powered women who earned their positions on merit sand not through forced quota. They included Amanda Mackenzie, Chief Marketing Officer of Aviva plc; Helena Morrissey, who in 2010 was named the most influential woman in European asset management; and broadcaster, journalist and chief executive Heather McGregor, who is Mrs Moneypenny of the Financial Times.

Hosting event in the European Parliamant on the voluntary alternatives to quotas