We get asked all the time when will Rotary International see a woman President. But had we put someone in that place just to check a box, it would’ve been terrible not only for Rotary but women as well,” says Jennifer Jones, one of the four women Directors on the RI Board.
She adds that at this point in Rotary’s history, and after it started inducting women in 1987, “I believe that we have enough qualified women at senior positions. So what does it take now? It takes women who have served in the Board to put their names forward. Hopefully some of the women who have served here will do that.”
I grab the opportunity to chat up Jennifer during my visit to the RI headquarters in Evanston, and women in Rotary naturally takes up a chunk of the interview. She says rather than a campaign to get more women into Rotary, “we need to find qualified people regardless of gender, and there are any number of qualified women out there! We do a disservice to ourselves if we go on a campaign and try to fill a certain population. We just have to find the right people who are worthy of our organisation.”
On the issue of women leaders in Rotary she thinks “we’ve only been in Rotary long enough to achieve being at the Board table.” It has taken a while, but then women had to be there long enough to become club presidents first, then DGs after few years, prove their worth through hard work in committees, etc, to become RI Directors. “And now we can see women sitting at the (Board) table not because we are women, but because we’re qualified Rotarians.”
To answer the question on the special contribution of women leaders to Rotary, she quotes RI President K R Ravindran, who “made a statement at our meeting (October 2015) that had we not brought women into Rotary, we would not be where we are today. And I agree with him, because we represent the global population.”
She adds that a special factor that women bring to Rotary is “our nurturing capacity,” hastily adding that there are many male nurturers too so “I don’t want to suggest that only women bring this.”
But doesn’t it come more naturally to women, I prod her.
When you think of what Rotary gives us, it is that opportunity for leadership, growth and development.
Well, women do raise their families and are constantly taking care of all the needs, whether of parents or children, she says. “Many of our counterparts do the same but there’s something unique which also makes for an interesting life balance in terms of leadership here, because I run a business, act as a Director on the RI Board, but still have to go grocery shopping, clean my house, buy the birthday and Christmas presents and the thank you cards!”
Jennifer joined Rotary in 1997 when she was only 27. She owned a television production company and the general manager of a cable company invited her to attend a Rotary meeting. “I had covered Rotary as a young reporter when it was still an ‘old men’s club.’ So I wasn’t really sure what to expect.” But anyway she went and “when I arrived I felt like I had arrived home!”
She knew almost half of the people there, and respected many others she met. “It was obvious from the very first minute this was something that
I wanted to be a part of.”
She joined RC Windsor-Roseland in Canada in 1997, and within a year chaired one of their largest fundraisers … a lobster festival! It involved handling a whole ton of lobsters from the east of Canada. “We have this huge dinner; but they trusted me and it became a very big leadership opportunity for me.”
So when “you think of what Rotary gives us, it is that opportunity for leadership, growth and development.” In 2001 she became the club president, and “loved it so much that I could have been club president for 20 years! The hardest part about it was stopping,” she says.
Her club then had 65 members and “probably 60 per cent were female,” with quite a few being either retired or about-to-retire female school administrators. “Ultimately they were the ones instrumental in making our club dynamic and so well run. They put in place systems.” And both the men and women worked together “as good Rotarians.”
Jennifer says what she really cherishes is her involvement with Rotary’s communications department, which is linked to her own vocation as a media professional. She first started working in the communications and Public Image area of Rotary in 2008 “when we were just beginning to understand we needed to have a more robust communication plan in sending out messages externally.” A couple of years later, when Rotary looked at rebranding, “I was one of the primary architects who worked with the staff. It was an incredible experience not only in what we delivered to Rotary but it also made me a stronger leader and a better professional in serving my clients.”
In 2007-08 she became Governor. Asked how difficult the journey was and if she faced any gender discrimination, Jennifer says, “Oh gosh, no,” adding that as the first female governor in the district, she was aware of breaking new ground. An interesting moment came when one of the district clubs which did not admit women into Rotary invited her to speak. There were many spouses in the audience and “in a very respectful manner I told them that I don’t want you to ask women to join your club. But I want you to find good Rotarians. It was a gentle way of saying they needed to expand their horizon.” Since then, that club has started taking women!
So is such a vital decision left to the individual clubs?
“Yes, every club is autonomous and can make its own decisions. However, if a club was to say we don’t want men, or women or some such thing, that would be very difficult for them to defend.”
She doesn’t know if any clubs in Canada refuse to take women members, “but I do know some Rotary clubs in the US which don’t have women; I don’t know if they don’t allow women or simply don’t have women members.”
A highlight of her year as DG was that the then RI President Wilf Wilkinson, “the first one from Canada in 53 years,” held a Presidential peace summit in her district. “It was an incredible experience. We had Nobel laureates, RI Board members, TRF Trustees, and huge participation. Robert Kennedy Junior was one of our keynote speakers. We were really able to showcase Rotary to the world through the huge immense media coverage we got,” she says.
Another was keeping the “crazy commitment” she made to attend the installation of all new members in her district. “That year 289 people were inducted and I went for all installations.” Jennifer says this was tough but “I wanted clubs to understand that bringing a new member was important. You should have respect. Some clubs, perhaps in other parts too, install a member and say, well, here’s your pin Bob, great!” And the meeting continues. What should happen is to tell the new member why Rotary is important and what difference their contribution can make to the society. “I wanted new members to feel the importance of becoming Rotarians.”
On being a role model for other women in Rotary, she says that the year she became DG, over 50 per cent of her club presidents were women and “many of them came up to me and said I specifically wanted to become president this year because I wanted to serve with you. As a woman, you made me believe I could do it.”
The gender ratio in Zones 28 and 29 that she represents, (which include a larger part of Northern US, and only a few clubs in Canada as she is in the southernmost part of Canada) is 30 per cent, above the Rotary average of around 20 per cent.
The challenges of serving on the RI Board as a Director abound, particularly as the RI President Ravindran “wants boots on the ground and has asked us to be in our districts to meet our Rotarians, which gives me a lot of joy but is a challenge as I have 28 districts under me.”
While on the business front she has a competent back up, on the family front, she isn’t too sure if she is balancing well. “This is thanksgiving season and my entire family is there but I am here in Evanston.” But, she adds, her family is very supportive, her husband is a club president — they belong to different clubs — her mother is a past president. As for children, “I have a dog, her name is Gracy, and I am in touch with her on Facetime!”
On her priorities as an RI Director, Jennifer says she works very closely with her Governors, focuses on larger clubs, MDPETS, 100th anniversaries, media events, and getting young professionals. “I want to raise Rotary’s profile in the two zones I represent so I am constantly looking for opportunities to showcase Rotary in the media.”
I loved being club president so much that I could have continued for 20 years! The hardest part was stopping!
On community projects in the developed world, she says that visiting India 20 months ago was a “light bulb moment” for her. In the US and Canada they raise money for international projects. But in India, when she saw Rotarians raising money and putting it into community projects, she thought surely there must be needs in her Zones that need to be addressed.
So last Christmas she and her husband put together food baskets. “We live in an area which is considered affluent, but there are people even here who are just one pay cheque away from losing their homes. Of course certain areas need more help than others, but everywhere there is need.” Another project her district is doing is a microcredit kind of model which is helping people set up their own enterprises.
On her dream for the future, she says now she is focused on the job at hand. “But to be completely honest, I need to have a better life-work balance: be a better friend, sister, daughter, and that’s a challenge. The position I am in right now gives the ability to change the world. And to be part of something that big is really compelling and many of us are very driven and want to be part of something which is so much bigger than ourselves and effect change. I consider Rotary akin to a mini global government which can effect change in the world.
Whether she looks at herself as a woman or not, ultimately her performance will be judged along gender lines; so does this put more pressure on her? She says in the Board her gender doesn’t matter. “I am very blessed to serve on K R Ravindran and John Germ’s Board. They have both shown that our voices are equal and we get to voice our opinions without any kind of condescension.”
So how long before we see a woman RI President?
“I believe we’ll see a female RI President within the next five years, but because she is qualified and not because she is a woman. We now have a critical mass of women … 10 who have served or currently serving as Directors and one of them is going to be qualified for the post!”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat