New legal authority is to be demanded from Westminster to set quotas for the number of women running public bodies, the First Minister told MSPs yesterday.
His intervention comes less than a week after The Herald revealed less than one-third of board members of many of Scotland's top public bodies is female.
Scottish Labour's equalities spokeswoman Jackie Baillie had used Freedom of Information legislation to obtain details of the composition of the boards of public sector organisations in areas such the arts, health, culture, justice and the environment.
Among her findings, it was revealed that Scotland's 14 health boards have an average of 37% women members.
Pressed by Ms Baillie during First Minister's Questions yesterday, Mr Salmond said: "We believe at least 40% of public board membership should be female. The legislative competence for introducing quotas lies with Westminster, as Jackie Baillie well knows.
"However, Shona Robison is working on seeking a Section 30 order to request that those powers be transferred to the Scottish Parliament so that we can address the issue."
Equalities Minister Ms Robison will host a summit on "women in public life" on Tuesday to look at ways of redressing the gender imbalance. It will consider reasons why women may be reluctant to apply for top jobs and why bodies fail to appoint those who do.
A Section 30 order allows for powers to be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood. It has already been used to give Holyrood the power to hold the independence referendum.
The Scottish Government's diversity strategy, launched five years ago, aims to ensure 40% of board appointments are female. However, Holyrood does not have the power to set an enforceable quota for the number of women on public body boards.
The percentage of women applying for top jobs has risen from 30% in 2007 to 34% now. Over the same period, the proportion appointed has gone up from 35% to 38%.
Ms Baillie said: "The SNP are hiding behind a Section 30 notice to divert attention from their total failure to meet their own targets set five years ago. Rather than saying they can't do anything, they should use the powers they were granted by the last Labour Government to make the difference.
"The legal powers exist to make the difference we've been calling for for more equal representation for women."
She said Scottish ministers could use the Equality Act to require public bodies to improve gender balance.
A Scottish Government spokesman said it was heading towards the 40% target, but added: "We want to have the full range of options available to us to make further progress in the gender balance on the boards of our public bodies and to sustain that progress."
l Women and Equalities Minister Jo Swinson has criticised employers who discriminate against workers expecting a baby. The pregnant East Dunbartonshire Liberal Democrat MP said the Coalition Government is investigating the extent of the problem.