Seven women governors break through the glass ceiling in India

The Rotary year 2023–24 has been a record-making year for women in Rotary in India, with as many as seven women managing to break the glass ceiling, and attaining the important post of district governor. Nine months into their term at their districts’ helm, Rotary News caught up with them to get a feel of their experience in their leadership roles, delve a little into their background, explore their achievements, and get views and opinions on subjects as diverse as gender in Rotary and the positive and negative aspects of Rotary in India.

From L: DGs Swati Herkal (RID 3132), R Anandtha Jothi (RID 3000), Asha Venugopal (RID 3030), Ritu Grover (RID 3040), Manjoo Phadke (RID 3131), B C Geetha (RID 3182) and Jayashree Mohanty (RID 3262).

Jayashree Mohanty, DG, RID 3262, is a postgraduate in International Business and an IT entrepreneur, who co-founded Luminous Infoways. She joined Rotary in 2008 after accompanying her husband to an invitation meeting of RC Bhubaneswar in 2008. “We liked the members and the bonhomie so much that both of us joined Rotary together on the same day as the club’s first Rotarian couple,” she says.

On the challenges she has faced in her journey to this leadership position, Jayashree says, “The rough patch of the election for the first woman DG of the district was the first challenge; the second was to create exemplary leadership and channel the members’ curiosity into a very fulfilling Rotary year.”

The rough patch of the elections for the first woman DG of the district was the first challenge; the second was to create an exemplary leadership and channel the members’ curiosity into a very fulfilling Rotary year.
– Jayashree Mohanty

She has been lucky enough to get the “highest regard for their DG with total support and acceptance of female leadership. The club leaders are called Bahubali presidents as each Rotary club has taken on bigger projects this year and they take great pride in my presence in their programmes and service projects. I find that many enterprising women have come forward to be presidents and secretaries in their Rotary clubs.”

On her special projects, Jayashree says, “There are several initiatives to be proud of. The Samman centres (private places for nursing mothers) and the Asha Mental Health Centre with access to both online and offline counselling, inaugurated by RI President Gordon McInally recently give us maximum pride.” Large water bodies benefitting 10,000 families in Rayagada, Odisha, have been inaugurated; the Rotary for Elimination of Filaria project done in partnership with the health department of Odisha has been a great success benefitting 38,000 people in six districts.

Her journey in Rotary has given Jayashree “a total sense of fulfilment. It has created a special space for me in every sphere, personal, professional and the industrial ecosystem. My opinions are sought on each significant issue and taken very seriously by my business associates, family and friends.”

My Rotary journey has given a total sense of fulfilment. It has created a special space in personal, professional and the industrial ecosystem. My opinions are sought on significant issues and taken very seriously my business associates, family and friends.
– Jayashree Mohanty

Also, the many projects the district’s Rotarians have taken up in collaboration with the government, have resulted in a stronger public image for Rotary. “On my request, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik had a long meeting with RI President Gordon during his visit to Bhubaneswar, where the CM acknowledged the contributions of Rotary and expressed his eagerness to collaborate,” she adds.

Manjoo Phadke, DG of RID 3131, and recipient of the prestigious Sylvia Whitlock Leadership Award, is a management graduate, corporate consultant and trainer, and is engaged in vocational education in association with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences that works for underprivileged students.

She joined Rotary in 2003 as a charter member of RC Pune Deccan Gymkhana when her boss took her to attend one of the first meetings of the club. “She left later on but I continued. That is destiny I suppose,” she says.

In her journey to become the district governor, Manjoo says she “didn’t face much challenge since I decided to contest on the insistence of many Rotarians from my district. I had worked at the ground level and had a huge connect with all the clubs in the district.” When she put her hat in the ring, out of the 138 clubs in the district then, “I knew at least 4–5 Rotarians from each club and had worked closely with almost 95 per cent of the clubs one way or the other! But then, some senior leaders did try to use gender bias, spread wrong information and misguide others, making it a tough election.”

I had worked closely with almost 95 per cent of the clubs one way or the other! But then, some senior leaders did try to use gender bias, spread wrong information and misguide others, making it a tough election.
– Manjoo Phadke

But ultimately, she adds, her connect with the ground level worked enabling her to counter all the “negative campaigning by senior leaders/Rotarians.” And once she was elected, there was no looking back for this feisty DG. The support from the district’s club leaders was huge. “I have a great batch of presidents, AGs, directors and district team members. Most Rotarians respect me for my work, dynamism, leadership and the fact that I never play a gender card to shy away from my duties and responsibilities. My teams work very closely with me and we are a happy bunch of people, laughing and enjoying while working hard for our district.”

She smiles as she shares feedback from the clubs: “They say they enjoy working with me since I don’t lose my cool and handle most situations with calm and composure.”

On the work she is most proud about, Manjoo says, “So much work has happened that it’s difficult to point to just one or two projects. But one thing I’m very happy about, and which is my brainchild, is setting up a very robust, transparent, ethical, audited and validated system of giving out Rotary CSR Awards. Over 65 corporates, many of whom were already working with us for their CSR projects, applied for this award, and we gave away 28 awards that were chosen by an independent eminent jury panel.”

Another mega and ambitious project is paediatric heart surgery; the district is planning for 1,000 such surgeries with a total outlay of ₹15 crore, funding is already organised for 550 operations, with 300 surgeries already completed. Other notable projects include the Parikrama car rally, which she led from the front, and during which several service projects such as RYLAs, industrial visits, etc were completed; Rotary Kindhearts, an advanced version of a crowdfunding platform for Rotary clubs to raise funds for their projects in a transparent and ethical manner, and creating records in Foundation giving. Adds Manjoo, “Within 40 days of 2023–24, we became a cent per cent giving district, the first in our zones, and perhaps even in the world. And today we stand No1 in APF (Annual Polio Fund) collection in our region.”

A graduate in commerce and law, B C Geetha, RID 3182, is the founder president of the Karnataka Mahila Sahakara Bank based in Chikkamagaluru, Karnataka, which is engaged in the financial empowerment of farmers, women and other local citizens involved in trading and housing. She is also the director of the Kodagu Gramin Bank, vice-president of the District Central Cooperative Bank, Chikkamagaluru, and member of the All India Congress Committee.

She joined RC Balehonnur in 2000 and is at present the secretary of the Balehonnur Education Society founded a few decades ago by her father. “I have added higher classes to this institution, which is the cornerstone of Balehonnur’s literacy movement,” she says. She was also the president of Inner Wheel Club of Balehonnur in 2008.

Of the many district projects done during her tenure, she particularly mentions soil conservation activities, road safety awareness programmes, value-based education to teachers, parents and children, and e-waste management activities. “I was also involved in an impactful project to provide drinking water to 25 government schools, especially in much-needed rural areas of our district.” Costing ₹11.25 lakh, the project was done in collaboration with other organisations as part of their CSR activity, with the main objective being to provide clean drinking water in schools.

I believe the district’s club leaders see me as a capable leader regardless of gender. My role as the second woman district governor of RID 3182 signifies progress towards gender neutrality and total acceptance.
– B C Geetha

On acceptance from her district’s club leaders, Geetha says club presidents “generally view me with a mix of respect, admiration and a bit of surprise given my gender. But overall, I believe they see me as a capable leader regardless of gender. My role as the second woman district governor of RID 3182 signifies progress towards gender neutrality and total acceptance.”

At the personal level, adds Geetha, her Rotary achievements have given her “a profound sense of personal fulfilment. As a DG I’ve been able to make a meaningful impact in my community and beyond, which is incredibly rewarding.” And it has also enhanced her image within her family and friends who “see me as a trailblazer and a source of inspiration”.

Anandtha Jothi, DG of RI District 3000, has graduated in English Literature, and a managing partner at Hotel Sree Baalaaji Bhavan, and owner of the Style Chic Boutique in Dindigul. On what aspect of her work she enjoys the most, she smiles and says; “At the hotel, I enjoy watching our customers being happy with our food, accommodation and other related services. At the boutique shop, it is a pleasure to work with our beautiful dress collections.”

She joined Rotary in 2003, after an introduction by family friend Kogila Jayaseelan, who is now serving as an assistant governor in her district.

I have faced not one or two but many challenges but they became my stepping stones and a strong motivation to reach this position.
– Anandtha Jothi

Asked about the challenges she has faced in reaching this position, she says, “I have faced not one or two but many challenges but they became my stepping stones and a strong motivation to reach this position.” However, once past the post, she has got nothing but “support and cooperation from the club presidents. They have accepted my leadership willingly and accept the guidance I give them, believing that this will help not only their local community, but also their personal goals.”

Predictably, Anandtha ensured that this year her district’s two most important projects were centred around women’s welfare and empowerment. “This year, we have been building nearly 75 toilet blocks (each with 10 toilet cubicles) in government and government-aided schools for girls. Also, 50 pink autos are being donated to destitute women.”

A project close to her heart was done soon after she took over her office — a large carnival for special children; “across our district’s 130 clubs, around 10,000 special children participated. Also we have inducted nearly 850 new members this year, chartered 17 new clubs and our RID 3000 is world no1 in membership growth.”

The biggest positives in Rotary in India is our membership which is huge compared to other countries, and the active involvement and participation of members is much higher in India than elsewhere.
– Anandtha Jothi

While she has enjoyed her entire Rotary journey, she has enjoyed most dealing with youngsters as the district’s RYLA chair and International RYLA chair. On what ails Rotary in India and what are its biggest assets, she says, “The membership in India is huge when compared to other countries, and we have a much higher involvement and participation of members. The negatives are that often our Rotarians forget we came into Rotary only for friendship and to spread love and peace. Also, they get involved in conflict…”

Swati Herkal, DG of District 3132, has graduated in electronics and in management. An IT consultant, she is the MD of her own company and enjoys working with youngsters the most. She joined RC Wai in 2000 because “I had the desire to give back to the community.” The two major challenges she has faced in “reaching the DG’s position is that senior leaders have little acceptance of women in a leadership position. Navigating the complexities of organisational politics within the district was another challenge.”

One challenge in reaching the DG’s position is that senior leaders have little acceptance of woman in a leadership position. Navigating the complexities of organisational politics within the district was another challenge.
– Swati Herkal

She says that though there were initial doubts from club leaders because of “my gender, I believe I am generally viewed with respect and support by club presidents in my district, as I have diligently worked to gain their trust and show my leadership abilities.”

Swati says her “biggest achievement during the first nine months of my term as DG is increasing membership and engagement across clubs in the district.” A major initiative she is proud of is the establishment of 12 pan-district transformation projects designed to provide solutions to several socioeconomic issues confronting the community. “These projects include sustainable farming, women’s health clinics on wheels for early detection of cancer, reducing deaths of newborns, environmental initiatives, along with literacy, which is my favourite.”

Women leaders bring unique characteristics such as empathy, collaboration and resilience to the table, which enrich the overall leadership landscape.
– Swati Herkal

Her engagement in Rotary, says Swati, has brought her “immense personal fulfilment, knowing that I am making a difference in the lives of others. It has also enhanced my image within my family and friends, as they see me as a dedicated leader committed to serving the community.”

Asha Venugopal, DG, RID 3030, graduated in business management and proudly says, “At 46, I did my diploma in Journalism from Pune University, getting the second rank in the university.” A joint director in the Zenith Metaplast group of companies, she enjoys the “process of manufacturing, interacting with the staff and troubleshooting when problems crop up.” She is also a Reiki, Karuna and Magnified Healing practitioner and conducts workshops for controlling the mind.

On how she joined Rotary, Asha says she was a girl Guide in school and an NCC cadet in college and participated in many social cause-based projects, blood donation being one. “I wanted to give back further to the community and there was no better platform than RI to do so. Inspired by the service Rotarians do for the underprivileged, I joined RC Nasik Grapecity in 2010.”

On the challenges she faced in this journey, Asha smiles and says, “Our club was and is always supportive to women in leadership positions. Hence at the club level I never faced any animosity; instead, I was always encouraged to go up the ladder and take up challenges. That way I have always had the backing of my club members.”

I had very supportive mentors who stood with me throughout my campaigning and election process. As happens in our elections, the opposite camp did do some negative politicking against me, but I fought the election and won!
– Asha Venugopal

In her bid to become a DG she had “very supportive mentors who stood with me throughout my campaigning and election process. As happens in our elections, the opposite camp did do some negative politicking against me, but I fought the election and won. So, I wasn’t nominated DG just because I was a woman! Anyway, it was high time our district had a woman leader.”

She is happy that “all the clubs in my district have accepted me wholeheartedly, and the members go out of their way to make me comfortable; I’m treated like any DG without any gender bias. My biggest achievement is the acceptability I am getting from the past and future leadership of our district and the camaraderie we share is fantastic. The members know that they can call me anytime and their query or need will be addressed.”

The project she is most proud of having done include Udaan under which “we distributed 5,555 bicycles to rural children who had to walk miles to school every day. This was a dream my husband and I had envisaged, and we executed it with our CSR funds in collaboration with all the clubs of our district.”

On the personal front, says Asha, her engagement in Rotary “has definitely enhanced my position in the community. I meet and discuss Rotary with many stalwarts of our society, share the same platform with people in important positions in the administration, politics, etc. And being felicitated by many organisations is like a dream come true.”

Ritu Grover, DG, RID 3040, is an MBA, and software programmer from Indore, where she was a “pioneer in setting up a women’s polytechnic in 1988.” Passionate about working for the “social upliftment of women and women’s empowerment,” she joined Rotary in 2006.

Even though generally I had total support from those in my district who do find me competent, I do find a little intolerance for a ‘woman’ holding such a high post in the district!
– Ritu Grover

She admits that being a woman was her biggest challenge in becoming the district governor, but “my constant and consistent work made the Rotarians in the district realise that I could be potential leader of the district.” She often finds that her club’s members “have a different perception/perspective on several things before a meeting but after interacting with me they totally turn around to ‘our Didi’!”

Ritu says that even though generally she has had “total support from the ones who do find me competent, I do find a little intolerance for a ‘woman’ holding such a high post in the district!”

Of the projects done under her leadership in the district, she is most proud of the Rahat medical and surgical camp that was held in Jhabua in February-end/March beginning, which saw a registration of a whopping number of 97,000 patients. “What a satisfying experience that was as more than 450 volunteers worked at this camp.”

At the personal level, Rotary has given me a great sense of belonging and self-esteem and becoming a governor has enhanced my image in my family, friends and the larger community.
– Ritu Grover

Another project she is happy about is the “fellowship trip the district team organised to Vaishno Devi and Amritsar, especially on my birthday, and around 100 members joined.”

At the personal level, Rotary has “given me a great sense of belonging and self-esteem and becoming a governor has enhanced my image in my family, friends and the larger community, even though they complain that they miss me as I can’t give them the time I did earlier!”

 

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

 

Cracking the glass ceiling

So is the glass ceiling finally cracking in Rotary, and what’s the position in India, I ask the women governors. On accepting women leaders in Rotary in India, Jayashree Mohanty thinks India is very accepting of women’s leadership and the “glass ceiling in the world has been broken already with our leaders Jennifer Jones and Stephanie Urchick. I think our Rotarians believe that women have capability and deserve the highest positions.”

But Anandtha Jothi offers a different view. She feels that “India is still lagging behind in accepting women as leaders, compared to other countries.” She feels that women themselves will have to make a push for leadership positions despite the many challenges they face, as she herself has done. “But if they come forward passionately they will certainly reach new heights.”

Swati Herkal, on the other hand, believes that “the glass ceiling in Rotary is gradually cracking, especially in India where there is a growing acceptance of women’s leadership. While challenges still exist, the progress made in recent years, including the election of two women RI presidents, is a positive sign of change.”

Manjoo Phadke has her own take on this issue. “I am not aware about the Rotary scene outside India, but in my district, most people are okay with having a woman governor.” In the corporate world, she says, there is bound to be gender bias, and people with their “own ideas about what a woman must do and what she must not do. Stereotyping is a huge hindrance to development of women’s leadership. Yes, I do get a few experiences of this sort but not to the level that hampers my work.”

B C Geetha agrees that “the glass ceiling in Rotary is gradually cracking, and this progress is particularly noticeable in countries like India where there is greater acceptance of women’s leadership within the organisation. There seem to be more openness to embracing women in leadership roles, which signifies change and a move towards greater gender equality within Rotary.”

On whether more doors will open for women in India to reach leadership positions, Manjoo says, “This remains to be seen; I do not have any experience of how higher leadership operates at the national level in India but things will unfold sooner or later and I will be able to take things in my stride.” Her staunch belief is that if you keep doing good work, things fall in place. “So I am going to enjoy every bit of my journey from here onwards without worrying too much!”

Ritu Grover feels that “definitely many more doors are open here to accept women as leaders in Rotary. I believe that if you have confidence and perseverance, you can achieve any status that you aspire for without any gender bias.”

On the special or unique qualities that women bring to the table, Jayashree says, “Women leaders are more hardworking, compassionate and facilitate learning. Also, they are more selfless and committed to Rotary.”

Swati feels women leaders bring “unique characteristics such as empathy, collaboration and resilience to the table, which enrich the overall leadership landscape.”

Asha underscores the point “this is the era for women in and out of Rotary. Rotary too is very accepting of women leaders. I’m happy that I’m part of the district leadership during these exciting times.”

Anandtha believes that women leaders are more compassionate and can provide unique service for the betterment of our communities. “I believe women leaders can definitely solve many problems and crises in the world. I only hope that in accordance with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, which said invest in women and accelerate progress, Rotary does the same!”

Women leaders are more hardworking, compassionate and are natural learning facilitators. Also, they are more selfless and committed to Rotary, says Jayashree.

The future, for women in Rotary and outside, looks really bright, agree the women governors. “The way most women leaders are performing and rapidly taking up various roles, I see all doors opening for women in the coming years,” says Jayashree. She adds that in her district, “we have greatly enhanced women’s leadership in Rotary, with 19 women club presidents and 15 assistant governors who have great opportunities to grow further.”

Swathi too is bullish on greater leadership roles for women in Rotary in the future. “I see more doors opening for women leaders in Rotary in India. As the organisation continues to evolve and embrace diversity, women will play an increasingly significant role in shaping its direction and impact.”

Geetha says women leaders “often bring unique qualities to the table, such as empathy, collaboration and a nurturing approach to leadership. These characteristics can contribute to more inclusive decision-making processes and foster a supportive environment within organisations like Rotary.” She adds that women leaders often serve as role models for other women and girls, encouraging them to pursue their own leadership aspirations and break barriers in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Adds Manjoo, “Women have always been able to handle relationships with empathy, coupled with result orientation and this single skill helps them bring a lot of value to the table whether it’s in Rotary or the corporate world.”


Positives and negatives

I ask the women DGs to spell out both the positive and negative features of the way Rotary operates in India.

Swati Herkal says one positive is “our Rotarians’ strong sense of community service and the opportunity for networking and collaboration among members. Two negative features include bureaucratic inefficiencies and resistance to change in certain quarters.”

Asha Venugopal feels that a big positive is that as “we are very emotional people by nature and hence are always ready to pitch in at times of trouble and do the needful without being asked. On the negative aspects, she says, “Politicking is emerging in a big way which if not curbed soon can be very detrimental for the future of Rotary in India. Good governance with transparency and honesty is also lacking at times.”

Jayashree Mohanty says one positive aspect is that “Rotary teaches leadership in a unique way, which reflects in a Rotarian’s personal and public life. It converts acquaintances into lifelong friends and mentors with whom you grow both personally and professionally. This results in a combined opportunity for service and an identity to be proud of in the community.”

On the flip side, she adds, an adverse feature is “the addition of members without screening the background or purpose for which that person is joining Rotary. The other negative is personal egos that result in formation of groups within the clubs, resulting in disputes.”

Anandtha Jothi finds the biggest positives in Rotary in India to be “our membership which is huge compared to other countries, and the active involvement and participation of members is much higher in India than in other countries.” But she is saddened by the fact that even though very active in Rotary, “people often forget the basic reason for which we join Rotary… for friendship and to spread love and peace. But quite often, Rotarians in India get involved in conflicts and become restless.”

The big positives that B C Geetha sees in the way Rotary operates in India are “strong community engagement and embracing diversity.” Elaborating, she says that Rotary clubs in India are often “deeply embedded within their communities, actively engaging in various service projects that address local needs such as education, healthcare and sanitation. This strong community engagement fosters meaningful impact and connection with the people they serve.”

The second positive, she says, is the clubs in India “embrace diversity in membership, welcoming individuals from different backgrounds, professions and age groups. This diversity enriches club activities and promotes a culture of inclusion and understanding.”

Ritu Grover finds one positive feature as the opportunity “to work with the whole district and being accepted as a leader.” The negative, she feels, is the direct connect that “Rotarians have to the RI directors and others and this can cause trouble sometime, and you have to waste your time clarifying things!”

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