Civil Services Reforms

Why women bureaucrats lose out on senior posts?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Insufficient Representation of Women in the IAS, systematic challenges and way forward

Central Idea

  • In June 1991, P V Narasimha Rao, the 10th prime minister, initiated the liberalization of India’s economy by assembling a team of bureaucrats, technocrats, and politicians. However, a striking absence of women in this influential group raises questions about their representation in shaping India’s future.

*Relevance of this topic*

*Despite its economic growth, women’s participation in the country’s economy, polity and society has not kept pace.

*As per IAS data and the central government’s employment census of 2011, less than 11 per cent of its total employees were women. In 2020, this reached 13 per cent only

*In fact, out of a total of 11,569 IAS officers entering service between 1951 and 2020, only 1,527 were women. Further, only 14 per cent of Secretaries in the IAS were women in 2022, 13 out of 92 posts.

*You can use the case studies mentioned below to support your answer

Insufficient Representation of Women in the IAS

  • Recruitment rules favoring men: Historically, the recruitment rules for the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) were skewed in favor of men. For instance, only unmarried women were allowed to join the services, and they were required to resign if they got married. Such discriminatory rules limited the number of women entering the IAS.
  • Late removal of marriage disqualifier: It was only after the removal of the marriage disqualifier that the ratio of women to men in the IAS started to improve. However, this change came too late to address the systemic issues and challenges faced by women in the civil services by the time liberalization efforts began in 1991.
  • Lack of senior positions: Structural issues and systemic barriers prevented women officers from attaining senior positions in the IAS. By the time P V Narasimha Rao was forming his team for liberalization, women officers were either too junior in rank or faced ongoing obstacles that hindered their progress.
  • Mistrust in women’s abilities: Despite the removal of entry barriers, women in the civil services were often relegated to “soft” departments and not considered for key roles in crucial ministries such as finance, commerce, and industry. There was a prevalent bias that undermined trust in women’s abilities to handle challenging portfolios.
  • Absence of women in top leadership positions: India has yet to see a woman hold positions such as RBI governor, cabinet secretary, or chief economic advisor. This lack of representation at the highest levels of decision-making perpetuated the perception that women were not fit for leadership roles in core ministries.
  • Missed opportunities for deserving women: There have been instances where highly qualified and deserving women civil servants were overlooked for senior positions. Examples include Renuka Viswanathan, who faced resistance when seeking a role in the finance ministry despite her exceptional qualifications, and Sudha Pillai, who was denied the chance to become India’s first woman cabinet secretary.
  • Limited lateral hiring from diverse backgrounds: While Rao’s team included technocrats from academia and multilateral organizations, the lateral hiring process predominantly favored men. This led to missed opportunities for talented women, such as Padma Desai and Isher Judge Ahluwalia, who were not invited to join the team despite their significant contributions and qualifications.

Cases of Exceptional Women and Missed Opportunities

  • Renuka Viswanathan: Renuka Viswanathan, the first woman district magistrate in Karnataka, held a doctorat d’etat (higher than a doctorate) in public finance from Paris Dauphine University. In the 1980s, when she sought a spot in the finance ministry, her appointment faced resistance. Her file was pushed to Rajiv Gandhi’s office, which had recently appointed Sarla Grewal as India’s first woman principal secretary to the prime minister. Ultimately, Viswanathan’s appointment was approved by Gandhi, highlighting her suitability for the finance ministry.
  • Sudha Pillai: Sudha Pillai, who could have become India’s first woman cabinet secretary, worked as a joint secretary in the industry ministry. She made notable contributions, including working on amending the anti-monopoly law. However, despite her qualifications and capabilities, she was not given the opportunity to reach the top leadership position of cabinet secretary.
  • Janaki Kathpalia: Janaki Kathpalia served as an additional secretary (budget) and worked closely with Manmohan Singh in preparing the union budgets from 1991 to 1995. Her role in shaping the budget was significant, but she also faced limitations in advancing to higher leadership positions.
  • Sindhushree Khullar: Sindhushree Khullar, who was the private secretary to the commerce minister P Chidambaram, oversaw significant changes in trade policy. Despite her contributions, she remained in a supporting role as a junior officer of the Indian Economic Service, which restricted her career progression.
  • Vandana Aggarwal: Vandana Aggarwal, another junior officer of the Indian Economic Service, played a crucial role in assisting Rakesh Mohan, the economic advisor to the industry ministry, in preparing the New Industrial Policy 1991. However, she also faced limitations in terms of recognition and upward mobility.

What are the Systemic challenges?

  • Gender bias and stereotypes: Deep-rooted gender biases and stereotypes influence perceptions of women’s capabilities and roles within the bureaucracy. These biases often limit women to certain departments or positions considered traditionally suitable for them, reinforcing gendered expectations and hindering their access to senior roles.
  • Lack of mentorship and support: Women in the civil services often face a lack of mentorship and support systems necessary for career advancement. Limited access to guidance from senior officials and mentors, who are predominantly male, can impede women’s professional growth and opportunities.
  • Work-life balance challenges: Balancing professional responsibilities with familial and domestic obligations remains a significant challenge for women in the IAS. The demanding nature of administrative roles, long working hours, and limited support structures for childcare and family care can deter women from pursuing or advancing in their careers.
  • Glass ceiling and limited career progression: The glass ceiling phenomenon refers to the invisible barriers that prevent women from reaching top leadership positions within the bureaucracy. Despite having the necessary qualifications and capabilities, women often encounter obstacles in their career progression, leading to a significant underrepresentation of women in senior roles.
  • Gendered norms and cultural barriers: Societal norms and cultural expectations can create additional hurdles for women in the civil services. Traditional gender roles, biases against working women, and societal pressures can discourage women from pursuing careers in the bureaucracy or limit their opportunities for growth.
  • Lack of supportive policies and initiatives: The absence of robust policies and initiatives specifically aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women in the civil services further exacerbates the systemic challenges. Limited maternity leave, inadequate childcare facilities, and a lack of gender-sensitive policies hinder women’s professional advancement and work-life balance

Positive Shifts in recent times towards greater gender representation and inclusivity in civils services

  • Increased representation in civil service examinations: The latest round of the union civil service examinations saw a significant increase in the number of women candidates selected. Out of the 933 candidates selected, 320 were women, marking the highest-ever representation of women in these examinations.
  • Top ranks achieved by women: Women candidates secured six spots in the top 10 ranks, including the top four ranks, repeating the record set in the previous year. This achievement demonstrates the exceptional performance and capabilities of women in these competitive examinations.
  • Growing number of women entering the bureaucracy: The increasing number of women qualifying and entering the civil services indicates a positive trend towards greater gender diversity in the bureaucracy. More women, who are equally competent, are joining the civil services than before.

Way Forward: Need for transformative change 

  • Policy Reforms: Introduce policy reforms that actively promote gender diversity and equal opportunities within the civil services. This includes reviewing and eliminating any discriminatory recruitment rules or practices that hinder women’s entry and advancement. Implementing gender-sensitive policies, such as extended maternity leave, flexible work arrangements, and support for work-life balance, can also foster a more inclusive work environment.
  • Mentoring and Leadership Development: Establish mentoring programs and leadership development initiatives specifically aimed at supporting women in the civil services. Encourage senior officials to mentor and guide aspiring women officers, providing them with opportunities to learn and grow within the bureaucracy. Leadership training programs should address gender biases, provide skill-building opportunities, and nurture women’s leadership potential.
  • Promoting Gender Sensitization: Conduct regular gender sensitization workshops and training sessions for all civil servants to raise awareness about gender biases, stereotypes, and the importance of gender equality. Create a work culture that values diversity, respects gender perspectives, and ensures a safe and inclusive environment for all employees.
  • Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Actively work towards breaking the glass ceiling that limits women’s progression to top leadership positions. Identify and address systemic barriers that impede women’s career advancement, such as biased promotion processes, lack of access to critical portfolios, and limited representation in decision-making bodies. Encourage transparent and merit-based selection processes for senior positions.
  • Encouraging Lateral Entry and Diverse Expertise: Promote lateral entry from diverse backgrounds, including academia, multilateral organizations, and the private sector, to bring in fresh perspectives and expertise. Ensure that women are equally considered for these lateral positions and given opportunities to contribute to policy formulation and implementation.
  • Institutional Support: Establish support mechanisms within the bureaucracy to address the unique challenges faced by women. This includes setting up internal committees to address gender-related grievances, providing mentorship networks, and creating avenues for women officers to voice their concerns and contribute to policy discussions.
  • Monitoring and Accountability: Regularly monitor and evaluate the progress made in achieving gender diversity goals within the civil services. Establish mechanisms for accountability and transparency to track the representation of women at different levels and ensure that policies and initiatives are effectively implemented.


  • The journey towards gender equality in India’s civil services has witnessed progress but also encountered challenges. By nurturing and empowering talented women, India’s bureaucracy can harness their potential and pave the way for inclusive and diverse leadership at the highest levels. Achieving gender parity in the civil services will not only strengthen India’s governance but also promote social and economic progress for the nation as a whole.

Also read:

Women’s Political Representation in India: Moving Beyond Tokenism


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