The majority of businesses in the West Midlands do not employ enough women and ethnic minorities, a city law firm has said.

A major report by international law firm DLA Piper claimed there were “serious concerns” about inequality in the workplace, with women and minorities under-represented in 56 per cent of firms in the region.

But it added the Equality Bill expected to be unveiled by minister Harriet Harman today would not solve the problem, and could stimulate resentment in the business world.

Senior HR professionals at West Midlands-based organisations surveyed by the law firm in March 2009 admitted that the under-representation of women and minorities in their organisations was a concern. Figures ranged from 21 per cent with concerns regarding women, through 27 per cent for ethnic minorities to almost 40 per cent for disabled employees.

Women represent 50.9 per cent of the UK workforce, 7.9 per cent of workers are from ethnic minorities and 16.8 per cent are disabled.

The Equality Bill is widely expected to attempt to address the problem of under-representation by allowing organisations that are recruiting staff to favour equally-qualified candidates from an under-represented group.

But Sandra Wallace, an employment partner at DLA Piper in Birmingham, said positive discrimination laws were controversial.

She said: “The chances that managers could misapply positive discrimination could lead to disgruntled candidates suing and this may strongly discourage many organisations from applying it.

“On top of this, there are risks that colleagues may think someone got their job due to their race, sex or disability which could cause significant friction at work.

“We expect this move alone to be ineffective at addressing the under-representation of women and minorities.”

She said mandatory “equality auditing” believed to be in the pipeline for the government might have long-term benefits, but would be “costly and unwelcome” to businesses.

Some sectors still see huge pay disparities between men and women – recent statistics show that the gender pay gap in the financial services sector is up to 60 per cent.

But the DLA research found 70 per cent of businesses in the West Midlands insisted there was no bias in pay levels.

The Equality Bill is widely expected to ban pay secrecy clauses that prevent employees from revealing their pay level to colleagues.

The government claims that these are used in a quarter of workplaces and that banning them will help expose gender pay gaps and encourage action to address these disparities.

Only six per cent of West Midlands-based organisations currently have pay secrecy clauses, according to the survey.

It will also legislate against discrimination by association so that individuals caring for disabled or elderly people can not be discriminated against.

Yesterday, the British Chambers of Commerce said the country’s smallest firms were suffering major problems coping with the “mass” of employment law.

BCC director general David Frost said: “This downturn has largely allied employers and employees.

“Employers want to retain skilled staff, while employees want to remain in work and will often take pay cuts and freezes to do so.”