Four women toppers among the top five in India’s prestigious IAS exams, as the news came in it was a moment of rejoice not only for the ladies and their families but for the entire country. Never before have the top spots been grabbed by women in civil service exams. Outshining hundreds and thousands among more than 4,00,000 aspirants is a feat in itself.
As a woman civil sevant who has walked the tightrope between responsibility and pressure of sorts, I would like to forewarn these achievers of challenges that lie ahead of them. A very promising career faces the danger of getting derailed due to several reasons. Firstly, it’s the image that counts and one should not be deterred by colleagues and seniors even in the State Secretariat who might get on your wrong side because of their pesky nature. Nuggets about the new female entrants are received with delight by one and all. And the test is more difficult for those in the limelight.
An IAS officer’s mettle is tested by his or her ability to anticipate problems and deal with them efficiently without rocking the boat. Administrative rules and regulations are important but the wisdom to anticipate public reaction and political fallout of decisions is also crucial.
Durga Shakti Nagpal, an SDM was unfairly suspended over illegal sand mining when she was following the Criminal Procedure Code and Supreme Court orders. But onlookers within the service also say that she lacked prudence by overlooking the potential clout of her adversaries. The first lesson then is to be aware of one’s strength but also be able to deliver in a milieu mired with political interference on a regular basis.
Durga Shakti Nagpal became IAS fraternity’s ‘Joan of Arc’. Not only did she face humiliation, there is a likelihood of resistance at every level whenever her name will come up for more responsible postings. Not because she did anything wrong but she did it as a woman.
Senior officers responsible for running departments in charge of commercial taxes, excise and land matters are fearful about calling a woman officer to say, ”Yaar chhodh de use- CM ka khas aadmi hai” (Spare the guy as he is close to the Chief Minister) While many male bureaucrats find ingenious ways to wriggle out of a sticky situation, their female counterparts usually throw the rule book at the senior, forgetting to fall back on diplomacy and persuasion despite possessing these attributes in ample measure.
Lesson number two- take on difficult assignments head-on but take pains to appear to be accommodating. A very common mistake women officers make is to wilfully abandon opportunities by saying, I would much rather have a posting near hometown.”(Read soft areas which count for little politically.) The process of ostracism begins immediately thereafter – making it almost impossible to return to the hard core areas of Finance, Home and Power. These three departments command much greater authority and proximity to political power which are time-honoured stepping stones to greater visibility. They also provide the experience needed to be picked up in core areas and economic ministries at the Centre. No one can be made Finance Secretary in the Government of India without having managed the Finance Department of the State.
Lesson three, never miss a chance to gain access into a domain otherwise considered as the male bastion and start young, that’s the only way.
Lesson four: Undoubtedly children and domestic priorities are important but senior officers offer nothing more than sympathy if such subjects are brought up before them. While male officers can catch up with superiors and others who matter outside office as well, it’s just home-after-office for women. And the brutal reality is that this acts against them as they are tagged ‘undependable’. No woman until now has become India’s Finance Secretary, Home Secretary or Cabinet Secretary because when opportunities were available to make a mark, women preferred to be mute spectators.
Message to the four brilliant women from the batch of 2015 and other women is clear. Ambition is not a bad word. Camaraderie with colleagues is important because aloofness will be taken as “un-officer-like behaviour”. All important decisions are taken after office hours so invest in stable domestic arrangements even if half your salary goes into that. Be prepared to travel at short notice, cultivate a range of interests and try and read as much as possible. Try and attain a work-life balance as it will help immensely in the long run.
It is also important to be at ease with power centres which includes ministers, politicians from all parties, senior bureaucrats from all services, businessmen, media and labour unions. Without that you can be the best officer on paper but considered unworthy for key assignments. Don’t have to bear with frivolous behaviour from anyone and try and pick good issues to fight over.
You have proved you are the ‘best of the best’ and once again congratulations. From the day you set foot in the National Academy and with your first district posting you must seize opportunities, confront problems and work hard. One determined step and you’ll pick the momentum in no time. God bless!