If you want to deliver great customer service, ensure your HR policies reflect the needs of women, says Gwyn Burr

On Tuesday I was proud to represent Sainsbury's at the Woman of the Year Awards. They provide an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women from all walks of life, in the UK and around the world, and provide inspiration for women to reach their full potential and motivate others to do the same.

I am a firm believer that by recruiting, developing and promoting women, retailers, and in particular supermarkets, can give themselves the edge on their competitors. We also know that 70% of our Nectar card holders are women and an in-depth understanding of these repeat shoppers is crucial for the continued growth of the retail industry.

It is important that retailers mirror the communities they serve. Only then can we begin to understand the shopper mindset, particularly in tough economic times. At Sainsbury's, we have a proud history of providing opportunities for women: during the First World War we were one of the first employers to recognise the potential of women in the workplace when we recruited the wives of colleagues who were away serving on the front lines.

Today, 56% of our colleagues are female. We are dedicated to offering flexible working, opportunities for career progression and a commitment to ensuring women are fairly represented at all levels in our business. But we recognise we can also do more to encourage women to take up a career in the dynamic world of retail.

This is why we want to increase the number of female managers leading our stores. The number has grown over the past three years, particularly in our smaller c-stores where more than 30% of the managers are female. We would like to have women in 20% of store manager positions across the business by 2011 and we are well on track.

Another integral part of encouraging women to develop their careers with Sainsbury's is our You Can initiative. This is our umbrella brand for the work we are doing to help our existing colleagues develop new skills and make ourselves more accessible to new recruits through working closely with leading organisations such as Jobcentre Plus.

Sainsbury's was the first employer to offer all of its colleagues this opportunity to gain a nationally recognised qualification. So far more than 10,000 colleagues are on the road to learning a new skill, gaining an official qualification and even training for a new job in the organisation. Every time I visit our stores colleagues tell me of the difference that You Can has made, not only to their work but also their home life.

Flexibility is also important. We all know it is the flexible working hours that attract many people to retail. Everyone at Sainsbury's has the opportunity to request flexible working so a career with us is open to everyone. This, combined with a caring and amenable approach, will reap dividends with even better colleague morale and retention.

I would call on all retailers to analyse if colleagues' needs are catered for. If you truly want to succeed in delivering great service to customers, you must ensure your HR policies reflect the needs of modern women. Retailers, like all employers, should look to offer the right blend of career development and flexibility while at the same time fostering a culture of aspiration if they are to attract the very best colleagues.

Gwyn Burr is customer service and colleague director at Sainsbury's.