TCPD Columns

Yes, Ma’am: Career Trajectories of Female IAS Officers from 1951-1979


Female labour participation in India has fallen over the last thirty years, beginning shortly after neo-liberalization in the 1990s which saw the shrinking of labour protection laws that were instrumental in accommodating women in the workforce. India’s poor record of female participation in the formal labour force is particularly illustrated in the public sector, where, as of 2021, only 9.35% of posts at the central government level were held by women.

In this context, analyzing the barriers to women’s participation in governance is imperative. Using the TCPD-IAS dataset which records information on the IAS officers of India, this essay will focus on the career trajectories of IAS officers recruited between 1951 and 1979 (these batches have been chosen as they are retired thus enabling the analysis of their entire careers) to examine the obstacles that have prevented women in the civil services from achieving the same ranks as their male counterparts.

The Barriers to Entry

There are two bottlenecks identified for the upward professional mobility of female IAS officers: non-traditional recruitment, i.e recruitment other than the civil services exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), and the process of empanelment, which refers to a career review of IAS officers by a panel of senior civil servants to assess their suitability for senior-level (beyond Joint Secretary) posts.

Non-Traditional Recruitment

Figure 1: Gendered Breakup of IAS officers by recruitment
Source: TCPD-IAS Dataset, generated on RStudio

The data indicates that the most number of women were inducted into the government through direct recruitment done via the Civil Services Exam, with women consisting of 9.9% of successful candidates, though this is a dismal number in itself. The next significant recruitment channel, which is through promotion from state civil services, is meagre with only 1% successful female candidates in comparison to male candidates who number 669. It must be noted that there are no women candidates in the special recruitment and short/emergency commissioned categories for this time period and that there are only two in the initial constitution category which consists of people hired when a post is first created. It must also be noted that up until 1972, the government could demand the resignation of a female IAS officer if she married3, pointing to an inherent gender bias in the system itself.

This suggests that women do better with more objective criteria of hiring, such as through the Civil Services Exam, rather than subjective, opaque means of induction into the bureaucracy where factors such as networking and office politics come into play. However, it is to be noted that regardless of the means of recruitment, women form no more than 10% of officers in the administration with there being only 7% female IAS officers between 1951-1979.


Figure 2: Rank-wise breakdown of the Gender Distribution of IAS officers
Source: TCPD-IAS Dataset, ias-json and ias-experience merged using unique IDs.

The basic hierarchy of ranks in the civil service is Junior Scale, Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, Director, Joint Secretary, Additional Secretary, Secretary, and Cabinet Secretary. Direct recruits are allotted ranks from the Junior Scale to the Under Secretary rank and are then promoted based on seniority. In this analysis, we are only considering direct recruits since alternate recruits are often promoted into the IAS decades into their careers. As we have seen in the previous analysis, these recruits are almost entirely male so their inclusion in this analysis will give a false picture of how many men fail to be empanelled as alternate recruits often reach the age of retirement before they are eligible for the empanelled ranks.

Promotions are automatic except for top posts such as that of the Secretary level which is conducted through the empanelment process. It must be highlighted that the data reveals that the cut-off point where female participation sharply drops is at the Additional Secretary level. Between 1952 and 1979, we observe that 98% of female IAS officers rose to director-level positions (the rank to which promotion is automatic and based on seniority) and that 89% made it to empanelled positions. This indicates that until promotion is automatic, only 2% of women fail to be promoted, but there is a sharp dip when empanelment, a subjective assessment process where networking and the opinion of peers and bosses are of prime importance.


The other two criteria for measuring a bureaucrat’s career are transfers which are defined as parallel changes in designation at the same rank and promotions which are defined as an upward movement in rank. In general, frequent promotions are considered a sign of a ‘good’ career, while frequent transfers disable the bureaucrat from concentrating power, enacting meaningful policies, and are frequently a result of political interference, as explained by Iyer and Mani (2012). Transfers generally curtail upward career trajectories and reduce the power and effectiveness of civil servants as they cannot sustain long-term relationships with their peers, bosses, and the locals and understand what is happening on the ground with only a short tenure in one designation.

Male officers are promoted, on average, 7.5 times throughout their career, while being transferred 2.9 times for every rank, while female officers are promoted 7.4 times in their careers, and transferred 3.1 times per rank. However, if we go back to figure 2, it is clear that more male officers start their careers at the ‘under secretary’ rank than ‘junior scale’ or ‘deputy secretary’, which means the seemingly small difference in promotions is actually quite large because the male officers are already starting their career from a higher rank than female officers.


While the representation of female IAS officers has historically been and continues to be quite low, simply inducting more women into the service is not enough because they face barriers through processes such as empanelment which structurally reward being compliant with the status quo. Secondly, while it is clear that even though the means of direct recruitment the gender ratio is unfavourable, the Civil Services Exam is far more gender-equitable than the alternate routes of recruitment, indicating the need for more transparency in alternate methods of recruitment as well as promotions in the state civil service. Lastly, even without the structural issues in promotions, female officers start their careers at a lower rank than male and face more frequent transfers which means a male and a female officer of the same rank can have vastly different levels of actual power.  With transfers of IAS officers serving as an indirect means of political control owing to the fact that politicians cannot fire IAS officers at will (Iyer and Mani, 2012), women officers, with higher rates of transfers than their male counterparts, are also likely to be more susceptible to the political influences of those in office, highlighting the need for structural reform to make India’s bureaucracy more gender equitable.

About the Author

Nandini Rawat is currently pursuing a Master’s in Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.


I would like to thank Maleeha Fatima and Shivam Gangwani, my supervisors at TCPD for their help, as well as everyone who worked on the TCPD-IAS dataset.


  1. Sharma, S. (2019, May 16). Conspicuous absence of women in India’s labour force in last 30 years. Business Standard.
  2. Iyer, L. and Mani, A., 2012. Traveling Agents: Political Change and Bureaucratic Turnover in India. Review of Economics and Statistics, 94(3), 723-739.
  3. George, J. 2011. Women in Administration in India. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 12(1), 151-156.
  4. “Service Profile for the Indian Administrative Service” (PDF). Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 August 2017. Retrieved 19 September 2022
  5. Singh, N. (2022, September 20). Share of women employees in CPSEs dips to 9.35% in FY21: Survey. Business Standard
  6. Swarup, H. L, and Sinha, N., “Women in Public Administration in India,”, 1991. In Jane H. Bayes (Ed.), Women in Public Administration: International Perspectives (Birmingham, NY: Haworth Press)
  7. “TCPD Indian Administrative Service Officers Dataset (TCPD-IAS), 1951-2020 Codebook 1.2”, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University. Neelesh Agrawal, Srishti Gupta, Vedant Jumle, Mohit Kumar, SV Sai Vikas. 2022.


This article belongs to the author and is independent of the views of the Centre.