Women in Rotary
(from the Rotarian Magazine)

Women in Rotary:
Founded in 1905, Rotary has grown exponentially. Today, there are approximately 1.2 million Rotary club members of more than 31,000 Rotary clubs in 166 countries.

For most of the 850,000 active Rotarians who joined the organization after January 1989, it's hard to imagine Rotary clubs without women. That was the year the Council on Legislation enacted the measure, advanced by current RI President Jonathan Majiyagbe, to allow Rotary clubs worldwide to admit members of both genders. Two years earlier, a U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way for women to join U.S. clubs.

Like the rest of society, Rotary was changing with the times. Was the change overdue? Few today would say it wasn't, but no more overdue than the overall movement toward gender equality that saw women advance into professions and positions of authority previously controlled by men. Once that happened, it was totally appropriate for women to be considered for membership in a vocationally classified organization like Rotary. Other major volunteer service organizations, such as Kiwanis International and Lions Clubs International, opened their ranks to women at about the same time.

The first female club president was Sylvia Whitlock, of the Rotary Club of Duarte, Calif., USA. But it's less important to rehash how and when women first became Rotarians than to examine their status today and reflect on their contributions and accomplishments. Today, PDG Alana Bergh is 2004-05 vice chair for the Membership Development and Retention Committee.

"I believe that the addition of women represents the single greatest force for Rotary growth since the chartering of the first international club in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1912," says Samuel L. Greene, who will chair RI's 2004-05 Membership Development and Retention Committee. "Not only have women added to our membership growth, but they've helped inject new life into Rotary clubs through their ideas and enthusiasm."

The committee's vice chair for next year, Alana Bergh, a past governor of District 5010 (Alaska, USA; Yukon Territory, Canada; and Eastern Russia) says that admitting women was Rotary's way of "recognizing that women today make up a major part of the business and professional circles in most communities."

Female Rotarians now number almost 140,000, about 12 percent of the total membership. "Wouldn't it be wonderful," asks Greene, "if each of those 140,000 Rotarians brought in one other woman as a member? That would bring the total to 280,000, and all they have to do to accomplish that is ask someone to join."

In 1995, eight U.S. women reached a milestone when they assumed the office of district governor. By unofficial count, 48 of this year's class of district governors-elect are women, representing 16 countries. Rotary's senior leaders are unequivocal in encouraging clubs to aggressively recruit qualified women and are leading by example as they consider candidates for committee appointments and other positions at the international level. Above all, they agree, women must have the opportunity to succeed based on their qualifications.

"I try to look at who is the best person for the job, not at the gender," says RI President-elect Glenn E. Estess Sr., who appointed Bergh to the vice chair's slot on the membership committee, positioning her to chair the panel in 2005-06. "I don't think women want to be selected or judged on the basis of gender, but rather on their qualifications."

Adds Barry E. Thompson, the current membership development chair: "The advancement of women within Rotary, based on their abilities, will do much to assist in the recruitment of more women by the clubs."

Providing leadership opportunities to women has been a recurring theme for President Majiyagbe, who included women wherever possible as he assembled his committees and task forces for this year. At the club level, Majiyagbe's Family of Rotary Initiative aims to make the organization more comfortable and accessible to women who want to participate with their husbands, brothers, and fathers.

RI President-nominee Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar already has an ambitious, if admittedly symbolic, goal for his term in 2005-06. "Because of the fact that the world's population is 52 percent women, when I name my committees and task forces, I will attempt to make [them] fifty-fifty wherever I can," he says, though he acknowledges that such factors such as experience requirements and a limited pool of potential candidates will make an even split impossible. "I know this will not happen, but that is my vision," Stenhammar says. "By appointing qualified women, I hope to show Rotarians around the world that there is a future for women in Rotary leadership."

Of course, major challenges remain. While gender is no longer an issue for thousands of successful Rotary clubs, differences in cultural values and societal norms in certain regions of the Rotary world impede the formation of dual-gender clubs. In some areas, women have formed their own clubs and have successfully demonstrated that they can be as effective in volunteer service as men. Perhaps such clubs represent an interim step toward full gender integration in those regions.

"We have to understand and respect the cultures of all of the places where we have Rotary, and we must be very careful not to foist values onto other people," cautions Bergh, adding that she has a friend in a country where women traditionally have had problems joining Rotary clubs. "But she tells me that it is happening now, and I don't think we need to take a hammer to it."

Success breeds success, and momentum will continue to build as more women thrive in Rotary and move up through the ranks of club, district, and international leadership. The next milestone will occur when a woman is elected to the RI Board of Directors. "It's just a matter of time before there is a female director," promises Estess. And eventually: the RI presidency.

However, as Majiyagbe reminded clubs earlier this year, the responsibility to nominate qualified women to the board rests not with the senior leadership but with the Rotarians within each zone.

As Stenhammar says, women make up half of the world's population, and an organization that strives to benefit all of humanity should mirror that fact. Perhaps Majiyagbe said it most succinctly in his closing remarks to his incoming district governors at the 2003 International Assembly: "Women and men work together in every area of life — family life, professional life, community life. It is only reasonable that we should work side-by-side in Rotary."


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