Introducing quotas to ensure a gender balance at senior levels of tourism and hospitality businesses is a “necessary evil”, according to a director of leading legal practice Norton Rose Fulbright.

Andrew McEachern, global director for people development at the company, told a panel debate at the Women 1st Conference 2013 that achieving an equal gender balance at the top of businesses would not be achieved without the enforcement of quotas.

“We will never get to where we want to get to unless we legislate for it. Quotas are a necessary evil,” said McEachern. “Our track record demonstrates that the pace of change is glacial. You have got to hit 30% plus of women at mid and senior level in businesses to make a difference.”

McEachern’s calls backed a similar plea by Labour MP Margaret Hodge at the conference for tourism organisations to give women a better chance of becoming managers through a quota system.

“I believe in setting quotas. You have to give women that chance,” she said.

The Labour Party’s women-only shortlists for voting in MPs is already giving opportunities to “fantastically bright women” to progress, she said.

“Some people hate the system but it’s a transitional period we have to go through. It’s shocking there are so few women in the cabinet,” added Hodge, now the first female chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

Managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi X London Rachelle Headland agreed that companies needed to have more senior level females. “We need to have more role models for women. If not through quotas, then companies have to set targets to make sure they make it through to the board.”

PwC partner Andy Woodfield said he already “exploits the gender balance” when it comes to staff recruitment and promotion.

Business teams with a 60-40 mix of women and men are far more effective than those with less than a third of women, he added. “Balanced teams perform better and it’s the right thing to do for business,” he said.

But YO! Sushi chief executive Robin Rowland said he was totally opposed to the introduction of quotas and is confident there will be a “tipping point” in 15 years’ time when society will achieve the gender balance in business.

He said: “I am on a mission to increase the number of women on the boards I sit on but I hate quotas. It’s about role models and inspiring people.

“I think the glass ceiling has been broken. There are some fabulous women in hospitality and leisure and they will be amazingly powerful.”