Mumbai and New Delhi: From 1951, when the first woman joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), until 2020, women have made up only 13% of all IAS officers.

Of 11,569 IAS officers who entered the civil services between 1951 and 2020, only 1,527 were women, shows an IndiaSpend analysis of the Indian Administrative Service Officers Dataset compiled by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) at Ashoka University.

To be sure, India has come a long way from when the board that interviewed Anna Rajam George, the first woman to pass the IAS exam, actively discouraged her, asking her to consider the foreign or central services instead. George's appointment letter even came with the condition that "in the event of marriage your service will be terminated".

The rule was subsequently changed and she continued in service even after marriage. But progress has been slow. In 1970, women made up 9% of those entering the IAS; that proportion rose to just 31% by 2020. Currently 21% of serving IAS officers are women, show data from the National Informatics Centre. The TCPD-IAS dataset is not exhaustive for the two decades from 1951 to 1970, and so the analysis that follows uses its data from 1970 to 2020.

"Gender equality is at the core of an inclusive and accountable public administration", noted the 2021 report of the United Nations Development Program, 'Gender Equality In Public Administration'. Ensuring equal representation of women in bureaucracy and public administration improves the functioning of the government, makes it more responsive and accountable to diverse public interests, enhances the quality of services delivered and increases trust and confidence in public organisations, the report found.

In March 2020, the government told Parliament that it "strives to have a workforce which reflects gender balance". But IndiaSpend found that little has changed on the ground.

We reached out to the Department of Personnel and Training, including the Minister of State Jitendra Singh and the media and communications department. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Fewer women take IAS exam

Every year, hundreds of thousands write the civil services exam (CSE), the recruitment exam to get into the IAS, but only a few thousand make it. The vast majority of these are men. The share of women sitting for the CSE touched 30% of all applicants only once, in 2017, data between 2010 and 2018, released by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), show.

To qualify for the CSE, candidates must be at least 21 years old and must have a graduate degree. There are three stages in the exam–a preliminary qualifying round, the main exam and the interview. Those with the highest combined scores in the last two make it to the final recruitment list. A candidate can appear for the exam up to six times and up to the age of 32 years. The government allows more opportunities to give the exam and relaxes the age limit for those from marginalised communities and for people with disabilities. For women, the fee of Rs 100 for the preliminary exam and Rs 200 for the main exam is waived.

Given the long runway to make it to the IAS, aspiring candidates need to spend a few years in their twenties preparing for and taking the exam–and this process can stretch into their early thirties if they fail in the first few tries.

"The CSE is a risky exam, often requiring multiple attempts," said Ira Singhal, a 2015-batch officer, currently serving as a deputy commissioner in the cadre that deals with legislative matters of union territories (AGMUT cadre). "Many families are not willing to support their daughters through the process because they are apprehensive about how they will explain all those years of preparation, in case the woman is not able to make it to the service, to a prospective groom."

"Walk around this area and try to find women above 30 who are not married and are preparing for the exam," Priya Roy*, a counsellor at a coaching centre in Karol Bagh in Delhi, a hub for CSE preparation, told IndiaSpend. "And contrast that to the number of unmarried, 30-plus men who are preparing."

Another factor is distance. Families are often reluctant to send their daughters away from home to the big cities to study, points out Pankaj Dwivedi, who teaches at a coaching centre in Delhi's Karol Bagh. "In fact, we have seen a relatively larger number of women sign up for online coaching, so that says something."

"You have to be a graduate to take the exam," Aanchal Chaudhury*, an officer in the AGMUT cadre, said. "And then you have to dream and have the financial resources to be in 'informal education' or take 'gap years' for at least a year or two…Add to this the fact that families tend to put less money in girls' education."

Over half (53%) of the women who made it to the IAS did so by the age of 26, an analysis of the TCPD-IAS data shows. For men, the corresponding age is 33 years. (While a large majority of officers are recruited directly through the CSE, some others join the service after being promoted from the state civil services, through special and/or emergency recruitment etc. The age limit of 32 years does not apply to such recruitments).

This underlines that women make fewer attempts at the IAS exam than men. Among women who took the 2018 exam, 61% were taking it for the first time, 19% the second time and only 5% were giving the exam the fifth (or more) time, as per data from UPSC's latest report (2019-20). Against that, nearly 10% of men were taking the exam for the fifth (or more) time. The data underline the point about families being unwilling to let their daughters spend their twenties in prepping and repeatedly attempting to pass the exam.

Gendered experience in IAS prep

The experience within coaching institutes is also impacted by gender, said Priya Roy. "I have noticed that female students are quite apprehensive to seek support from faculty, nearly all of whom are young-to-middle aged men. They feel awkward about contacting them informally, outside the classroom, often out of safety concerns, and sometimes out of the fear that they may be judged if they were to reach out to these male teachers on their own," Roy pointed out. "These mental barriers are totally absent for male aspirants."

A glass ceiling for women

Because of the power an IAS officer can wield, there is little scope for blatant sexism, but biases against women do not go away, various officers told IndiaSpend.

The rule restricting married women being in the IAS was removed but the thinking remained that certain jobs (like the police service, for example) were not for women, said Rajni Sekhri Sibal, a retired IAS officer, who has written a book about 10 exemplary women IAS officers.

Even within the IAS, it is implicitly assumed that certain postings are not for women, Sibal said, giving the example of her own cadre, Haryana, which did not appoint any woman to the position of deputy commissioner for three decades after it became a state in 1966. "Here the bias was explicit–their exclusion from the position was justified by saying how would they perform the duty?," Sibal, who joined the service in 1986, said. Haryana got its first woman deputy commissioner only in 1991.

"You don't realise there is a gender bias when you are in the training phase, or even in the initial years of the job. But there is a reason why fewer women make it to powerful decision-making roles, or go up the ladder," Aanchal Chaudhury of the AGMUT cadre said, adding that even in her own cadre, very few women from older batches were now in 'influential' positions.

As of January 03, 2022, only 14% (13) of the 92 secretaries to the Indian government were women. Across the 36 Indian states and union territories, there were only two women chief secretaries, as of December 3, 2021. India has never had a woman Cabinet secretary till date. And while the majority of women retire after completing their full tenures in the service, they are more likely than men to seek voluntary retirement from service, data compiled by TCPD show.

"IAS officers often have to deal with politicians, who tend to draw lines when dealing with women," Shreya Das*, an IAS officer from the Madhya Pradesh cadre, says. "Politicians are often not very comfortable in dealing with female officers, and therefore they may not want women IAS officers in departments where they have to deal with them too much." This, Das explains, is why women end up with 'softer postings'.

Among civil servants in India, women are more likely than men to be overseeing cultural affairs, education, food, civil supplies and consumer affairs, industry and commerce, health, welfare and women and child development. They are much less likely to be in charge of urban development, law and order, finance, general administration and energy. "All the 'non-glamourous' posts come to women all the time, while all the finance and 'glamourous ones' go to men", said Renu Sethi*, a retired IAS officer. There are women in the glamorous portfolios too, "but I'd say we'd be most likely the second choice."

Women shoulder an unequal burden of the housework

A less noticed aspect is that of family expectations: Women, even IAS officers, are expected to balance their work with their roles as wives and mothers, and this double burden can have a negative impact on their careers, various women officers pointed out. Among other things, this burden impels women to seek 'softer postings' that are likely to give them more free time rather than opt for the more challenging roles. "When a woman becomes an IAS officer her marriage market goes down," Sethi told IndiaSpend, "whereas that of a man goes up significantly. People don't want to have an IAS wife because of ego issues".

A report by a committee on civil services reform set up in 2004, under P.C. Hota, former chairperson of the UPSC, recognised the additional burden of domestic responsibilities on women officers. The committee, which did not have any women, noted that women officers do not want reservations for posts or any concessions, but that they need facilities of leave with pay so that they can bring up their children and stay with their husbands when their place of posting is different from the place of posting/workplace of their husbands. The report recommended an additional four years of leave with full pay for women in their entire service career over and above the leaves applicable for all. (Maternity leave for women employees of the Central government was extended to 180 days, and child care leave upto two years in 2008 based on recommendations of the Sixth Central Pay Commission).

Larger gender gap in IAS applicants from SCs, OBCs, interstate disparities

While fewer women appear for the CSE as compared to men across all categories, the gender gap between aspirants is wider for those from marginalised communities, as per data available in UPSC reports since 2007.

There is also interstate variation in the gender gap. Women made up 41% of IAS officers, selected between 1970 and 2020, who listed their domicile as Chandigarh, followed by 32% who listed it as Uttarakhand and 29% as Telangana, TCPD-IAS data show. On the other hand, only 3% of all IAS from Tripura have been women, followed by Odisha and Mizoram, at 5%.

More women IAS officers as of December 2021 were serving in southern and (broadly) richer states of India, data from the National Informatics Centre show. Karnataka and Telangana are the only two state cadres where 30% of the officers were women. Against that, less than 15% of the cadre in Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Bihar, Tripura and Jharkhand were women.

Gender disparity is endemic in the IAS and within that, there are further disparities of class and caste and even domicile. For India to move towards a bureaucracy with gender parity, more change is needed at the level of family and society than from the system, said women officers that IndiaSpend spoke to.

Families need to support daughters and daughters-in-law while they prepare for, and even after they enter the service, they said.

"In addition to family support, we also need to start encouraging girls from an early age to consider the IAS as a serious career choice," Sibal, the retired IAS officer, said. "Clearing the civil service exam needs one to be well read and well informed of the news, and these are habits that are best developed early. Often girls start thinking about this career much later, while boys are often encouraged from a very early age."

Note: *Name changed on request

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