Lt Sushmita Chakraborty’s suicide in Jammu drew attention to the problems lady officers face in the forces; Army Vice Chief Lt General K Pattabhiraman’s controversial comments hinted at a bias against them.
Women bureaucrats say neither of the two – problems or bias — are exclusive to women in the defence services. They, too, face a strikingly similar set of problems. Yes, a gradual change in mindset has made life easier than it was three-four decades ago for women entering the civil services. But their troubles are far from over.
Reva Nayyar says it is a problem of numbers. “Women do not have the critical mass,” said Nayyar, secretary in the department of women and child development and the senior-most woman bureaucrat at the Centre. Nayyar says while around 30 per cent could construe as the critical mass; today it is closer to 7-8 per cent in the All-India Services and a mere 2-3 per cent in the police.
Greater numbers not only ensure that more people are used to the idea of women being in a position of authority but also give them a position of strength. The absence of this critical mass in Parliament, for instance, ensures that governments can pay lip service to the cause of women and get away with it.
Which, another official pointed out, is no longer the case with Panchayati Raj institutions, “not when there are 10 lakh women in the system and in states like Karnataka, even winning elections to unreserved seats”.
Officials also note an inherent bias – declining but still there – against women that keeps them away from crucial posts like heads of departments of finance, defence or home. “It is no coincidence that women officers do not get to head these departments,” said Delhi’s Public Grievance Commission chief Shailja Chandra, who broke the glass ceiling when she rose to become the Capital’s first woman chief secretary.
Of course, a common argument made out is that the senior women contenders did not have the experience of handling such departments. No one, of course, questions why women were not given the requisite exposure in the first place when they were, say, a joint secretary or director.