Is having women toppers in UPSC enough?

For the past few years, 'women outshine men' has been the go-to headline in newspapers after the results of several major examinations are declared.

Credit : Shubham Patil

Oliviya Kunjumon | Women top rank holders in the Union Public service Examination (UPSC) this year made waves across the media. For the past few years, 'women outshine men' has been the go-to headline in newspapers after the results of several major examinations are declared. The number of women appearing for the Civil Service Examinations (CSEs) has been seeing a steady rise since the turn of the century. While the increasing number of women gaining top accolades in the competitive examinations deserves all the appreciation that they get, what should not hide behind this are the challenges that women face while doing so.

Women bagged the top three positions in the recent CSE 2021 result. Shruti Sharma stood first, followed by Ankita Agrawal and Gamini Singla. Although there have been many instances of women securing high positions in UPSC exams in the past years,  this is for the first time since 2014 that the top three rankers are women. Women featuring in the top 10 positions is a regular thing these days. But the main question that arises here is: Does this all lead to a more inclusive framework for women in the civil service?

The percentage of women appearing for the CSE touched 30 percent of all candidates only once in 2017, as per the UPSC data between 2010 and 2018. The foremost answer to all these lies in the societal perception and the traditional patriarchal mindset prevalent in Indian society.

“The UPSC preparation in Delhi is not easy for girls as there are societal compulsions and being a bachelor, it is very difficult to find a good place to stay. Also there is pressure from family as to what is the next plan if you don't crack the exam," says Shraddha Badhwaik an aspirant from Nagpur, who is currently preparing for CSE in Delhi. 


"Financial management, dependency and time limitation are the major problems faced by women during the
preparation of the exam."


The UPSC does not discriminate against women. Both men and women are given equal chances of making it to the service. Even the government encourages women candidates and has also waived their admission fees. So, despite this nominal encouragement by the government and virtually no discrimination from the law, why is their number low compared to men in the service?

“Financial management, dependency and time limitation are the major problems faced by women during the preparation of the exam,” says Nirali Parmar, a UPSC aspirant from Gujarat.

"It is very difficult for most girls to make the choice of continuing attempts as long as they can unless they are independent. Time is limited for girls than boys. Many girls also find it difficult to convince their parents to let them leave home to study in a different city where they have access to resources or even buy the necessary books," Parmar added.

Given a long runway to make it to the CSE, candidates spend years preparing for and taking exams - even multiple times. In such circumstances with the women candidates, many families do not willingly support their daughters due to the long years of preparation and the idea of getting them married at the 'standard' age. Another cause is many families are unwilling to send their daughters far away to the bigger cities to study.

Another aspirant Priya Gupta from Patna, Bihar says, “I do my UPSC preparation with the limited available resources and it is very difficult for me to manage my studies with the job. My parents won’t allow me to take coaching as they consider it an additional financial burden. Also, it is very hard for me to have access to online studies.”


According to the available data, from 1951 to 2020, women have made up only 13 percent of all IAS Officers. That means out of 11,569 IAS officers who entered the civil services between these years, only 1,527 were women, as per the report of IndiaSpend analysis of the Indian Administrative Service Officers Dataset compiled by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University. One of the major challenges that hinder the number of women in Civil Services is the number of attempts women can afford to give.

Jayshree Shripad Jare, a UPSC aspirant for the past three years, hails from a small village in Zatwadi in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar. “I am the eldest of the three children in my family. I did my graduation in BSc Chemistry but could not find a job of my choice. At that time, some of my friends were preparing for competitive exams. It caught my interest and I started my preparation. Although initially, I tried to study on my own, it turned out to be very hard for me. So, I decided to take coaching at a Pune based UPSC coaching centre. My parents were not ready to send me to Pune for a long period and they were worried about the finances also. But somehow due to the references, I managed to get a fee concession," Jare says.

However, the challenge before Jare now is to try and clear her third attempt before it's too late. "Now, this is my third attempt (CSE 2022) and most probably the last because there is marriage pressure from home. Since I have two younger siblings, one of whom is a girl, my parents are also worried about managing the finances of both our weddings,” she says.

As per the report by Gender Nation Development Programme 2021, 'Ensuring equal representation of women in bureaucracy and public administration improves the functioning of the government, and makes it more responsive and accountable to diverse public interests, enhances the quality services delivered and increases trust and confidence in public organisations'. Although things are far changed and much better today but a look at the number would reveal that the representation of women is still poor when it comes to civil service in India.


The presence of women at all-important posts of District Magistrates are not more than 19 percent across the country.


“Recently, there has been an increase in the number of women giving the CSE compared to the earlier statistics. There are many passionate women who strive hard, leaving previous jobs and such, to crack the examination. Even after the age of 26 or so, I’ve seen women preparing for the exam. Even though currently the number of women in the service is not very high and it will take some years, there will certainly be an increase in their ratio,” says Amit Medhekar who is the centre head of the Pune branch of Chanakya IAS Academy.

While there is a changing paradigm of women entering the UPSC’s CSE averaging at around 30 percent since 2014, the presence of women at all-important posts of District Magistrates are not more than 19 percent across the country. The women are more likely to be overseeing cultural affairs, education, food, industry and commerce, health, civil supplies and consumer affairs and women and child development. They tend to be given a lesser role to play in urban development, law and order and finance. In a sense, there is a distinction between non-glamorous and glamourous posts between genders, a Business Standard report quoted an anonymous retired IAS officer saying.

A legitimate call of grievances and problems faced by women aspirants is possible only when there is a strong increase in their number in services with the power and authority to bring about change using the system. To address an issue related to women specifically, it is important to have more women with the notch of power. Until the women are not empowered and encouraged in every other aspect of life, their numbers in the civil services would also be dreary. Again, these changes cannot be brought overnight. Only generational changes can ensure true equality in the long run.