Here is the good news. There is a decent chance that Delhi will soon have a woman police commissioner. And that too, no ordinary woman. The person slated to take over the post is Kiran Bedi, the first woman Indian Police Service (IPS) officer whose work has won her many awards, national and international.

Maharashtra could also have a woman at the top — the first woman Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer to become Chief Secretary of the State. None of this is confirmed at the time of writing. But the chances look good for both women.

But both these women, regardless of their standing in their respective services, would have had to fill in the same appraisal form that judges their worth not just by what they have achieved as officers, but what they are as women. Here biology has been made an important component of performance appraisal at work. If this sounds ridiculous, that is precisely what it is. And why it has drawn anger and protest from senior women officers.

Irrelevant details

The All India Services Performance Appraisal Rules, 2007, contains under the heading "Brief clinical history, if any" the following: "female officers" are required to state "Detailed menstrual history and history of last menstrual period including date of last confinement".

Familiar prejudices are being played out anew as women make headway in previously male-dominated fields.

 •  Women's road to the top

A report on this in the media has predictably led to much anger and protest. The matter was raised by Rajya Sabha Member Brinda Karat, the National Commission on Women took note, senior women officers in Maharashtra have sent a strong letter of protest and as a result this, the offensive section in the appraisal rules will be removed. But why was it there in the first place? This is what not just women government officers but women in other professions are asking. Do women have no other health problems except those relating to their reproductive functions? If these forms are for men and women, surely it would have sufficed to ask for "clinical history" without specifying what women officers — or "female officers" as the form prefers to call them — needed to explain.

There are some who would argue that the matter is not worth all the fuss. Why should this question be considered discriminatory towards women? Are not pregnancy and menstruation an essential part of a woman's life and health? Although no one will deny this fact, this appraisal was for work and is not a detailed medical history of the person. Therefore, the questions in it should have some relevance to work performance. How does the state of a woman's reproductive health have any more bearing on her performance at work than people with chronic problems like asthma, or psoriasis, for instance. Surely, health issues need not be "gendered" in this way.

Also, as a senior woman officer from Maharashtra pointed out, if women specific health problems are included in the appraisal, then perhaps some men specific problems should also be included — such as health issues arising from excess intake of tobacco or alcohol.

The appraisal form is the cause of not just irritation and anger but also concern. It reminds us that the apparent commitment to gender equity by the government or any organisation can never be taken for granted and that women must remain forever vigilant. It is precisely these types of casual slips that undercut women's fight for equal rights. Just as racial laws do not end racism, or affirmative action end caste prejudice and discrimination, pro-women policies take a long time to be integrated into the system.

Need for constant vigil

My personal experience on the gender issue has taught me that you can never take the concern for granted. Even today, over 20 years after the contemporary women's movement in India began campaigning on a whole range of women's concerns, and after several U.N. conferences where India has pledged its commitment to gender equity, women's concerns are often overlooked. At meetings and discussions, anyone pointing out that women have been sidelined, or even forgotten, is treated with derision or irritation. Instead of accepting that no issue, whether it is the budget, health, water, sanitation, housing etc, can be discussed without factoring in the women's perspective, the general attitude even today is to try and sidestep this aspect.

This "gendered" appraisal form suggests that even as women, within mainstream institutions, try to progress without drawing attention to themselves as women, there are always other aspects of organisations that constantly emphasise their gender. Their work is assessed not necessarily by neutral, objective criteria. The gender angle somehow creeps in, directly or indirectly. Thus, women who speak up are "aggressive" while their male counterparts are "dynamic". Women who show sympathy or are caring are considered "weak" or "emotional" while men are considered the new-age males. Women who put the job first, even before family, and get things done are considered "hard" while a man would be considered "efficient". This sounds like an old, familiar story, except that it is being played out anew in myriad situations around the world and in this country. Ask the women IAS officers in Maharashtra.