Quotas backed by legislation should be introduced to tackle gender inequality, a university study recommends today.

The London School of Economics Commission's recommendation comes less than a week after Sir Brian Leveson, president of the Queen's Bench Division, branded quotas as 'demeaning' to women and minority ethnic groups.

The LSE report, Confronting Gender Inequality, states that quotas backed by legislation are more effective than 'soft company initiatives' and represent a 'minimal condition' for securing change.

Professor Nicola Lacey (pictured), school professor of law, gender and social policy at the LSE, admitted to the Gazette that quotas were 'controversial'.

'But in the context of failure of existing policies effectively to tackle the over-representation of men in the upper echelons of the legal profession, we believe that anyone seriously committed to the gender injustice and equality must be prepared to consider a more radical approach,' she said.

'And we firmly believe that, where properly handled and properly understood, quotas do not imply any disrespect for either sex.'

The gender pay gap among solicitors is around 30%, with women at the top of the profession earning around £50,000 per year less than their male counterparts, the report states.

Male associate solicitors are 10 times more likely to become partners than their female counterparts; 17% of equity partners in the UK are women.

Judicial appointments reflected a similar ‘hierarchical pattern’, the report says. 

Women account for a fifth of circuit court judges. In the High Court, there are 21 women out of 108 judges. Women account for eight out of 38 Court of Appeal judges. One woman was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1998. The 14 appointments made since then have been ‘middle class white men’, the report states.

It cites the Labour party’s ‘successful experiment’ with all-women shortlists, formalised in the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, as an existing model 'on which we can build'.

It also welcomes the recent adoption of targets for women on company boards and at partnership level in some law firms.

‘We would argue that dialogue between government, unions, service users and professional bodies about the need to raise targets from 30% should be maintained,’ the report states.

Public spending cuts and market pressures have become key barriers to advancing gender equality through the law, the commission added.

The commercial interests of solicitors’ firms, the report notes, ‘increasingly shape the organisation of work’, with important implications for work-life balance and career progression for those with caring responsibilities.

‘Radical’ cuts in legal aid, and ‘substantial’ fees for tribunal hearings and judicial review ‘are making access to justice illusory for large swathes of the population, with a particular impact on women given their unequal position,’ it says, recommending the reversal of cuts to legal aid and the abolition of fees for tribunal hearings and judicial review.

Funke Abimbola, managing counsel (UK and Ireland) for Roche UK, has called for the top 50 law firms to adopt social mobility targets. 

The recommendation is one of six made in a report on social mobility, Opening up or shutting out?, published by Byfield Consultancy today.

Abimbola advised firms to use established initiatives such as the '30% Club' as a model. The 30% Club was established in 2010 to help women make up 30% of FTSE 100 boards by the end of 2015.