The Davies Report on women on boards published in February 2011 recommended that executive search firms should draw up a voluntary code of conduct to address board gender diversity and to set out best practice for the search process for FTSE 350 board appointments. Twenty executive search firms have now drawn up such a code (available at http://www.mwmconsulting.com/downloadables/HeadhuntersCode-200711.pdf). It suggests that search firms should ensure that at least 30% of the candidates on longlists are women and, if not, should explicitly justify to the client why they are convinced that there are no other qualified female options, through demonstrating the scope and rigour of their research.

The point is not made in the Code, but search firms do need to ensure that they do not fall into the trap of discriminating against men when trying to follow its principles. Given that clients can be vicariously liable for the actions of a search firm, clients should give clear instructions that the same level of qualification or experience should be applied to men and women candidates for the long list and that potential male candidates identified by a more rigorous search should also be included.