By Claire West

Employers will be asked to help tackle the gender pay gap by publishing equality data about their workforce on a voluntary basis, under plans announced today by Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

The proposal, which will increase transparency and help employers identify problems, is aimed at organisations that employ 150 or more people and follows a similar commitment for the public sector announced earlier this year.

Speaking at the launch of the annual Female FTSE100 report, which shows that the number of women on the boards of Britain's biggest companies has barely increased in the past three years, the Minister also announced that the Government will enact the Equality Act's rules on positive action in relation to recruitment and promotion.

This will help employers make their organisations more representative by giving them the option, when faced with two or more candidates of equal merit, to choose a candidate from a group that is under-represented in the workforce. For example, a primary school that has no male teachers could choose to appoint a male candidate who is of equal merit to a female candidate. This does not mean allowing "quotas" or giving someone a job just because they are a woman, disabled or from an ethnic minority - positive discrimination is not acceptable and remains illegal.

Details of both measures are contained in the cross-government Equality Strategy, which was published this morning. It explains the Government's new approach to tackling inequality, which sees a move away from the identity politics of the past to a vision of equality of opportunity based on treating people as individuals with individual needs.

As part of this new approach the Government Equalities Office will become a unit of the Home Office rather than a standalone department, bringing equality into the heart of Government.

Speaking to an audience of business leaders at London's Docklands, Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said:

"We want to move away from the arrogant notion that Government knows best to one where Government empowers individuals, businesses and communities to make change happen. Different organisations face different challenges in promoting equality so if we are to get this right for everybody a much more flexible approach is needed.

"Today's Equality Strategy is our blueprint for change, including plans for voluntary pay reporting and positive action in recruitment and promotion.

"These plans are absolutely not about political correctness, or red tape, or quotas. They are about giving individual employers the tools they need to help make the workplace fairer."