The shadow attorney general has reignited the controversial debate over gender quotas, calling for time-limited affirmative action to speed up gender equality progress.

Baroness Chakrabarti, a barrister and former in-house lawyer, told the Law Society's international summit on gender equality yesterday that 'affirmative action is how we got so many women in parliament – not because socialist men were so enlightened but because we took steps to speed up change'. 

Shami Chakrabarti

Baroness Chakrabarti

Source: PA Images

At its 1993 conference the Labour party adopted all-women shortlists for selecting parliamentary candidates. Candidates for the 2001 general election were selected from 50-50 shortlists. In 2002 the party introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act  which enabled political parties to adopt measures regulating the selection of candidates for certain elections to reduce gender inequality. The Conservative party made changes to its parliamentary selection process after David Cameron was elected leader in 2006.

Chakrabarti recalled that when she joined civil rights organisation Liberty in 2001, 'all the junior staff were women, all the senior staff and governance structures were predominantly men. We introduced time-limited affirmative action for a fixed two-year period'. By the time Chakrabarti became director of Liberty two years later, the policy was no longer necessary. 'We had made that cultural change,' she said.

Meanwhile, lord chancellor David Gauke told the conference that 'more work needs to be done to make gender equality a reality across the profession. We cannot rest on our laurels'. He said a Women in Law pledge devised by the Society, Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives had the government's support, and urged law firms and barristers' chambers to sign it.

The pledge, Gauke said, 'puts transparency at the front and centre of gender equality in the law. Ensuring diversity is properly measured will ensure it can be properly managed. It gives women access to ask potential employers "if not now, why?"'

The reaction to the question of whether gender quotas should be introduced is often mixed. Earlier this year, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said his scepticism about targets 'extends to principled opposition to quotas', which he thinks are incompatible with appointment on merit and would affect public confidence in the judiciary. However, Dana Denis-Smith, solicitor-founder of The First 100 Years Project, which has been charting the history of women in the law, said the time has come for quotas to help women become equity partners.