Employers will be able to hire a woman over a man of equal merit under new equality measures, the government has said.
Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has announced the plans, to be introduced next year, in an effort to address under-representation in the workforce.
In the past three years, there has barely been any increase in the number of women on the boards of Britain's biggest companies.
From April 2011, employers will be allowed, "on a permissive basis, to apply voluntary positive action in recruitment and promotion processes when faced with two or more candidates of equal merit, to address under-representation in the workforce".
The government's equality strategy went on: "This does not mean 'quotas' or giving someone a job just because they are a woman, disabled or from an ethnic minority - positive discrimination is not acceptable and is unlawful."
But legislation which would force employers to disclose whether they pay women as much as men, as proposed by the previous Labour government, will not be enforced as the coalition instead opts for a voluntary approach.
Ms Featherstone said the plans were not about "political correctness, or red tape, or quotas" and insisted the measures would help make the workplace fairer.