It is a familiar complaint that the boards of many British companies and major public institutions are predominantly white, male and middle class.

For a number of years, the NHS was an honourable exception to this, attracting many women to serve on trust boards. However, we have recently seen a change.

From near parity with men in 2002 (47 per cent), the number of women non-executives on NHS boards has declined steadily. The latest available figure from the Appointments Commission is less than 36 per cent. More worryingly, this trend is projected to continue.

An increasing number of non-executive directors are resigning in the run-up to foundation trust status and a considerable percentage (38 per cent) of them are women. Is this because women are perceived, or perceive themselves, as not having the right financial, commercial or managerial skills necessary for a foundation trust?

I have raised this issue with Monitor chair Bill Moyes and his response has been clear: "We don't want to see boards made up entirely of middle-aged accountants."

Inherent bias

One of the questions we asked ourselves at the commission is whether there could be any bias inherent in the selection process. Independent research carried out on our behalf last year shows that once applications are received, women are just as likely to be appointed as men. Indeed, they are more likely to be interviewed for positions than men, and 72 per cent of women deemed "appointable" are successfully appointed, compared with 68 per cent of men.

So there appears to be no bias in the process. The real issue is that there are more than twice as many male as female applicants for non-executive roles.

I have spent much of my life working in the field of diversity and equality. As a former equal opportunities commissioner and as a member of Opportunity Now, I have campaigned for the rights of women in the workplace, so this is an issue I feel passionately about. One of my priorities when I became commission chair last year was to introduce initiatives to encourage more women non-executives to join the NHS.

Scouting for talent

Over 70 per cent of current non-executives are aged between 50 and 70 - predominantly retired people or those in the later stages of their careers. It seemed to me that one way to encourage more women was to attract a younger age group. And the obvious place to look was the labour force, where the number of women in senior management roles has been increasingly rapidly.

I pursued the idea of encouraging managers in the talent pools of private sector companies to apply for non-executive roles in the NHS. BT, which has always been at the leading edge of opportunity and people development, provided a secondee to help us and offered to act as a pilot company to start the project off.

Since the project began in spring 2007, 19 companies have joined, including well-known names like Microsoft, Sainsburys, HBOS and the BBC. More than 140 managers have registered their interest in non-executive roles - 40 per cent of them women. The managers can apply for vacancies as they are advertised locally and compete against other candidates in the usual rigorous selection procedure. Several women from the pilot project have already been appointed to trust boards.

The commission is working hard on this issue, but I believe we all have a duty to encourage more women - as well as people from black and minority ethnic communities and people with disabilities - to take advantage of the opportunity to serve their local NHS.

For more information, visit www.appointments.org.uk