A Sunday Herald survey of leading Scots businesswomen has revealed strong opposition to a European Commission proposal for mandatory 40% quotas for women on company boards.

Of the sample group of 30 of Scotland's highest-profile businesswomen, only two respondents agreed with the proposal by commission vice-president Viviane Reding,

Reding's plan to set mandatory quotas for Europe's publicly-quoted company boards was scotched last week, despite a last-minute compromise plan. However, that is due to be reproposed to the college of commissioners next month.

All of the Scotland-based respondents to the Sunday Herald questionnaire agreed that greater participation at boardroom level was desirable on grounds of equality and diversity.

But there were numerous reasons for disagreeing with the quota proposal, including its potential to cause resentment, constraints on freedom of choice, irrelevance to the root causes of women's non-participation, a risk of tokenism, lack of demand from female candidates, and the risk of discrimination against men.

One respondent, Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, founder of Genius Foods, said: "If Viviane Reding's campaign gains traction it could potentially damage the standing of women in business, through the resentment that quotas such as these can foster.

"However, the debate she is generating can only stimulate awareness and the changes required to address the poor representation of women on boards. Rather than focus on gender quotas we should focus on the merits of mixed gender boards and how to provide support for suitably qualified women to move into board positions.

"Many companies would benefit or are already benefiting from the approaches, attitudes and skills sets of female directors. However, imposed quotas are more likely to have an adverse effect, potentially leading to discrimination.

"Most businesswomen want to be on the board because they deserve to be, not because they are simply making up the numbers.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said "Businesses need to ensure they are employing talent from the broadest possible pool, rather than traditional avenues, and attitudes and behaviour need to reflect business in the 21st century. I'd like to see us raising the campaign through merit, and only if there is no improvement go for regulation."

Zoe Ogilvie, a director of leading PR agency The Big Partnership, said: "Imposed quotas are more likely to have an adverse effect, potentially leading to discrimination. Most businesswomen want to be on the board because they deserve to be - Addressing barriers such as out-dated attitudes, culture, tradition and practical ones such as choice and affordability of childcare, are much more acceptable solutions."

The proposal was strongly supported by Fenella Mason, a partner at lawyer Burness, who said: "I don't think we can afford to continue to ignore 50% of our pool of talent. We need every ounce of talent we have to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment. If 50% of our talent pool is being thwarted by systemic prejudice we need radical measures to address that. I can't see anything other than good coming out of this proposal."

Professor Rita Marcella, dean of faculty at Aberdeen Business School, agreed: "We need more female representation on boards and the fact that it remains so low despite women's greater involvement in the workplace and education means there is clearly a need for legislation to ensure that we improve on the current low levels," she said.

"This would perhaps help to ensure improvement in levels of female representation at senior levels in companies and in ensuring a more gender-balanced approach to workplace issues, such as harassment."

Reding's proposed changes, which would only cover Europe's 5000 leading quoted companies and would not be enforced until 2020, is based on research suggesting greater gender diversity on company boards improves company performance, and corporate governance and ethics.

Reding said commissioners would now look at the compromise idea in greater detail: "It took centuries to get gender equality on the map - boardrooms can wait for three more weeks. I will not give up."