By Kerry Kornhauser
Founder of Women in Rotary Australia
When recent focus groups, in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Sydney and Chicago, were asked to characterise Rotary and Rotarians, their responses included: “Business men”, “elite”, “secretive”, “old”, “wealthy” and “not sure that women are allowed into local clubs”.
After more than 20 years since women were first admitted into Rotary, the perception that women are not allowed or welcome in Rotary continues in all regions. Perhaps this explains the alarming statistic that just 18 per cent of Rotarians worldwide are women.
Why does this matter?
The low number of women in Rotary matters for two main reasons.
First, women represent a large, untapped pool of potential volunteers.
At the heart of each Rotary club are its volunteer members. However, over the past decade there has been no growth in the total number of Rotarians worldwide, with many clubs struggling to maintain members. In fact, were it not for the increased number of women Rotarians during this period, Rotary would have over 115,000 fewer members than a decade ago!
Gender diversity is thus vital for maintaining and expanding Rotary’s membership base. This is particularly so given that in some places the rate of volunteerism among women is higher, and growing faster, than that of men.
Currently, we have about 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide. If we had a 50/50 gender split, we could arrest the decline in the number of Rotarians and build up a volunteer base of more than two million Rotarians. Imagine what a difference that would make!
Second, more women in Rotary is likely to help us better deliver our services.
It is not that women make “better” Rotarians. Rather, increased diversity yields better outcomes, and clubs that reflect the communities they serve may be able to better engage those communities and meet their needs.
In the corporate world, research has repeatedly linked greater gender diversity on companies’ boards with better financial returns: of Fortune 500 companies, for example, those with more women board members outperform those with the least by 53 per cent in return on equity! One of the key reasons for this, it is thought, is that women offer a differing and complementing perspective to that of men. Put simply by the former Chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, William Donaldson, “monolithic backgrounds are destined to foster monolithic thinking”.
Increasing the number of women in Rotary is not about fairness or equality. It simply makes sense if we want to continue doing what we have been doing for more than 100 years.
There is a large and growing number of women in senior business and community roles with a great deal to contribute through Rotary. Why are they not gravitating towards us? This is our loss.
The questions remain: How do we change the perception of potential women volunteers? How do we attract them to Rotary? What strategies do the District Governors and Presidents of today have planned, and what are their ideas for tomorrow?
We need to work hard to encourage more women to join Rotary and dispel the myth that they are not welcome. The future of Rotary depends on enthusiastic membership.
In Melbourne, for example, over the past two years we have celebrated International Women’s Day with a large breakfast, which we hope sent a strong message that women are very much a part of Rotary, while also raising funds for local causes. After just two years of running the event, we had nearly 1000 men and women attend in 2013, with other successful events in the UK and Canada.
As a fellow female Rotarian I throw this challenge to both men and women: How do we increase female membership and spread the word that women are welcome in Rotary?