Getting Women On Board: Part 1

In the first of a three-part series, this article looks at the role of women in Rotary.

Worldwide, there are over 1.2 million Rotarians in more than 200 countries and geographical areas, more than 2,500 of those belonging to Rotary District 9800.  And, at its core, Rotary is about its members, who are in the fortunate position of being able to provide input and direction to the organisation and to ensure that it continues its good work.

Women were first formally admitted into Rotary International in 1989, and by the following year there were approximately 20,000 female Rotarians. Over the next 20 years, numbers have continued to grow, and there are now close to 200,000 female Rotarians worldwide, making up approximately 16% of Rotary membership and 13% of District Governors.

Whilst this growth is clearly positive, the figures still show a major gender disparity – for every female Rotarian, there are five male Rotarians! Why is this the case?

There are a number of barriers to women volunteering in Rotary. Perhaps arising from the historical factor of women only being allowed to join Rotary relatively recently, a series of Rotary International focus groups from locations as diverse as Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Sydney found that there remains a strong perception that “women are not allowed or welcomed into Rotary” and that it remains an elite club for wealthy businessmen. Further, many women simply do not have the opportunities to discover that this is not the case and learn about Rotary through a lack of the informal networking opportunities that men may have. “It’s not deliberate”, writes Connie Glaser, a commentator on gender issues and women in leadership, “it’s unusual to invite women to go to the cigar bar, the golf game, the sports event. It’s part of the male culture, but a lot of women are excluded, either because it’s not of interest to them or it’s assumed it isn’t”.

There are also social attitudes regarding appropriate gender roles that influence women’s decisions about leadership and participation. Traditionally, women have been associated with the home sphere, and there is often a deeply ingrained preconception (held by both men and women) that women are less capable, competitive and productive than men, and lack a task-oriented approach. Concerns also arise over whether it is possible to become actively involved in Rotary whilst balancing family responsibilities, another factor highlighted by the Rotary International focus groups. These preconceptions are only strengthened by a lack of women in leadership position in Rotary to act as role models.

So, why is this important and what can be done about it? In Part Two, I will look at why the lack of women in Rotary is more than just a gender-equality issue. In fact, it threatens the very future of Rotary and its ability to continue its good work in the community.

For further discussion contact Kerry Kornhauser at

Getting Women On Board: Part 2

In the second of a three-part series, this article looks at why it is more important than ever to have women involved in Rotary, and what can be done to achieve this.

Involving women in Rotary is a lot more than simply a matter of gender equality. Rather, increased gender diversity Rotary’s senior is likely to have numerous benefits, and in particular improved performance of Rotary, and the increased attraction of, and retention of, volunteers. Ultimately, it is crucial for the future of Rotary.

In the private sector, a link is increasingly being drawn between gender diversity in senior positions and performance, with numerous studies showing companies with higher levels of gender diversity outperforming their competitors. Put simply by a former Chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, William Donaldson, “monolithic backgrounds are destined to foster monolithic thinking” and women add a differing and complementing perspective to that of men, allowing for more innovative ideas to develop. Rotary too, could benefit from this.

However, perhaps the most important reason that Rotary must act to increase the number of women in the organisation is that women represent a huge, under-utilised sector of the community from which to draw volunteers. At a time when male Rotarian membership is stagnant or even falling, women are a fast growing sector of potential volunteers and over the past decade have been crucial in allowing for the continued growth of Rotary. In particular, it is again important to have women in senior positions. Not only do such women have a deeper and more intimate knowledge of the needs and goals of other women volunteers, placing them in a unique position to attract women to the organisation, as well as retain them, but the presence of women in senior positions also sends a strong message to current and future women volunteers that women are valued by Rotary and helps dispel any myths that suggest otherwise.

So, what can be done about this? Firstly, action needs to be taken to increase the number of women in senior Rotary positions, including on the District Board. We should draw from the ASX’s Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations, such as providing greater transparency on the processes which the Board adopts in board member selection and succession planning, including the steps it takes to ensure that a diverse range of candidates, and the appropriate mix on the Board, is considered; establishing a diversity policy which includes requirements for the Board to establish measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity; and establishing appropriate procedures to ensure that the diversity policy is implemented properly, including an internal review mechanism. Further, we need to recruit women with specifically targeted campaigns, which will be the focus of the next part in this series.

For further discussion contact Kerry Kornhauser at

Getting Women On Board: Part 3  

In the final part of the series, we look at how to best recruit women and why specifically targeted campaigns are so important.

Whilst general recruiting schemes are of course important, the reality is that to date, they failed to sufficiently attract women. Indeed, there remains a misconception amongst many women that Rotary simply is not for them.  And, just as has long been recognized in the world of advertising and marketing for commercial products, recruitment campaigns and material also needs to be targeted towards those it is trying to reach – insofar as Rotary needs to attract more women, their recruitment material must reflect this.

In the same way that health foods tend to be advertised in exercise magazines, and beauty products tend to be advertised in women’s magazines, it is important to specifically target some Rotary recruitment programs towards women. However, it is not simply a matter of reaching the target audience (women) by advertising in places in which they will see it.

As explained in part one, there a numerous reasons that the number of women in Rotary is comparatively low, such as the perception that women are not welcome, do not have what it takes to reach senior positions, and that it is difficult to balance a commitment to Rotary with family life. As such reasons either only affect women, or affect women to a greater degree than men, there needs to be a strong focus on addressing these issues when trying to promote Rotary to women – indeed, this was one of the conclusions from the Rotary International focus groups.  Similarly, there are also gender differences in the motivations for volunteering. For example, a survey by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy noted that women are more likely to volunteer to explore their own strengths, whereas men are more likely to volunteer to use their skills and experience.

Ultimately, whilst it is of course important to continue general recruitment programs, it is also equally important to recognize that different people have different reasons for joining or not joining Rotary. If we are serious about increasing the number of under-represented groups in Rotary, including women, it is thus essential to target specific additional recruitment programs towards such groups to be able to attract them by both breaking down preconceptions that may prevent them from joining Rotary, as well as appealing to the specific features of Rotary that interest them.

Similarly, just as recruitment programs need to be targeted towards women, the types of projects that Rotary undertakes should also be considered. As with their motivations for volunteering, research suggests that men and women also tend to be attracted to different types of volunteering projects. For example, whereas male volunteers are traditionally attracted to sport and recreation projects, women have traditionally been involved in community/welfare projects. It is thus important that Rotary engages volunteers in a wide range of activities that will appeal and attract all demographics.

For further discussion contact Kerry Kornhauser at

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