The number of female UK directors has risen but women remain underrepresented

We don't want to stop people having fun at work and we don't want to make people frightened to open their mouths for fear of being branded 'un-PC'. But we do want to attract our top talent from the widest pool possible and that increasingly means including more women."

So says Amanda Jones, the Co-op's head of diversity, who believes that making diversity into a political issue "turns people off" and may be counter-productive in an organisation which now employs around 86,000 people.

"Our message is that it doesn't matter what sex or race you are, nor whether you have caring responsibilities or not in addition to your work. The only thing that matters to us is whether you can do your job properly and we are finding that our senior women are very capable indeed."

At the Co-op, where 39 per cent of the top management grade is female, the firm's entire talent management programme aims to have diversity built into it. The same cannot be said of all blue-chip UK firms, however.

Dr Val Singh, senior research fellow at the Cranfield School of Management, has, since 1999, co-authored the annual Female FTSE Index.

While the number of women holding directorships in the country's top firms has risen from 69 in 2000 to 117 now, Dr Singh says she is "disappointed at the very slow level of growth."

"Although I suppose you could say I am cautiously optimistic that more women will find their way to the top in the long run, we are seeing boards shrinking, not expanding at present.

"As long as the competition for executive seats on boards gets tighter and tighter - as is the case today - the numbers of women being included will, sadly, fail to grow."

She adds: "Given that women are half of the population and have been represented in the UK workforce in a significant way for at least 20 to 30 years, it is a surprise to me that comparatively few of them have made it to the upper echelons of management so far."

Of the women who are being slotted into top roles, Singh notes that it is those with international experience, and a financial background, that are making their mark. "In an era of globalisation, firms need international credentials in both their men and women and it is no accident that the women doing best at the moment are non-British.

"Successful women are being exposed internationally in a way that has never happened before," she adds, "but it does mean that our home-grown female talent are in many cases still waiting for the call."