An Afternoon with a Woman Rotarian

As in any other field of life, there is an increasing number of women in Rotary clubs who, due to their professional accomplishments, have become a part of this elite. I have interviewed a woman Rotarian who became the second female member of the Rotary Club of Pancevo

There are many parallel universes in life discreetly passing you by that you don’t stop to think about, until you are accidentally touched by one of them. And then all of a sudden, you are intrigued and you embark on a journey of discovery. As far as I am concerened, Rotarianism is one them. You know that there are people in your community who are a part of it, but nothing more specific than that. I happen to know Biljana Barna, an English teacher and the owner of the language school New English Schoolin Pancevo from a different context, but I have just recently learned that she is one of the seven female members of the Rotary Club of Pancevo. The aim of the Rotarian philosophy is to develop a noble idea, cherish high ethical standards and provide support to the local community. Discretion and unobtrusiveness are their signature marks, and connecting and networking are their methods of operation. The only way to become a Rotarian is to receive an invitation by an existing club member, who basically vouches for you. The Four-Way Test actually stands at the heart of their programme and operation: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?Even though Biljana is terribly busy, when you first meet her you realize at first glance that she is a superwoman, and I stole some of her precious time to talk about women Rotarians.

If you were to paint a picture of a typical female Rotarian, how would you describe her?

A typical female Rotarian is a woman who is highly engaged, emancipated and accomplished in her chosen profession. She has a lot of friends and is always ready to participate in the actions of the Club which are planned on an annual or monthly basis.

Traditionally, only men had the privilege of becoming Rotarians. What is it like today – what is the general female-to-male ratio in Rotary clubs?

Rotarianism as a movement has existed for many years. During the 1980’s, the time of female emancipation, the first female members of Rotary clubs emerged in Europe. In the beginning Rotary clubs had exclusively male memberships and even today, both globally and here in Serbia, there are clubs with exclusively male membership. Generally speaking, women are still a minority, but the situation is much more favorable than it used to be. Women are now market leaders, they own and manage many companies and their presence and achievements in their chosen professions have earned them the right to become Rotarians. So we already have some clubs, such as the Rotary Club of Banja Luka with exclusively female membership.



What is the situation like in your club in Pancevo?

At the moment, the Rotary Club of Pancevo has seven women, which is a large number when compared to the situation in the past. We have a total of twenty members, out of whom fifteen are active, which speaks for the fact that women are becoming increasingly interested in joining the movement. And that is nice.

In a way, I was both nervous and flattered, feeling a sense of awe at the club, because back then all members were senior citizens

How did you become a part of this society?

It was quite a long time ago. I was terribly nervous when they told me that I had been elected among four excellent female language teachers. Members of a Rotary club are people who come from different professions, and they have to be recognized as leaders in their field. Back then, they were deciding among four prospective female Rotarians and I was surprised when they called me and asked me if I was interested in joining the Rotary. Up until then, all I knew about Rotary came from stories I had heard in the UK and London, so I was, in a way, both nervous and flattered, feeling a sense of awe at the club, because back then all members were senior citizens. It was in 2004, and the Club had been formed four years earlier. The preparations to start the club usually take a long time, but in this case it was actually the process of re-establishment and rechartering because the Club had been founded a long time before that, in 1927, as the fourth of its kind in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and then the Great War came. From that time on to 2004, our charter certificate was in New York, and in 2004 I joined the club as its second female member. The ceremony was very formal, conventional and traditional, modelled on British and German club traditions.

Interestingly, although the work of this society is public, the public still knows little about it. Why is that?

I think that we are sufficiently present in the public. We do not want to attract too much attention, and our work and activities which are mostly related to the local self government are the things that the public should be mostly interested in. We do not seek too much attention because we believe that an action should reflect the Club, rather than any particular individual.

Politics and religion are forbidden topics. Is there anything else that you never talk about?

One of the nicest things about the Club is that we are all gathered around a noble cause. The bond that connects all of us is the fact that we are all leaders in our professions and whenever we meet we feel as if we were in our second families. We work hard, so our meetings are held in the evenings, and then we talk about nice things, our families, support initiatives, and we exchange experiences. There is no place for topics that could lead to heated debates or differences in opinions. Unfortunately, we live in a time when politics and religion are placed above other values. Also, some other matters are not discussed, for example the question of a person’s sexual orientation is not important to us, and it is personal.

Rotary membership is not hereditary but earned through hard work, ethics and self-development

How does the club decide who to support?

Each Rotary club has a President, Secretary, Treasurer and the Board of Directors. The Board is comprised of people who are responsible for such tasks. There are many wishes, especially today, many initiatives to provide support in the form of medical treatments, education and humanitarian aid. In fact, we primarily support prevention and our major ongoing action is the acquisition of a 4D ultrasound machine, which has joined our two clubs in Pancevo – our Rotary Club of Pancevo and RC Mihajlo Pupin. The acquisition of this machine which costs 440,000 euros will benefit not only the City of Pancevo and the surrounding villages, but also the residents of the whole Banat region, primarily taking care of pregnant women and new mothers. Also, the ultrasound machine will be used for the prevention of numerous health issues that have escalated after the bombing. As for other actions, we provide a lot of support to talented young people – pupils and students, enabling them to continue their education abroad, by providing scholarships. It is not easy to decide who to support, and that’s why the Board has to thoroughly consider everything before reaching the right decision, because unlike our fellows from developed countries, we cannot give large contributions from our incomes. We strive to provide equal support both to those who are successful, and to people who suffer from serious health issues.

Women Rotarians also have some special actions of their own. You have recently organized Rotary Ladies Night and an evening charity fashion show by AMC Afrodite Mode Collection

Yes,Rotary Ladies Nightin Pancevo is held once every year. It is a ball that was traditionally only organized by men, which provided the opportunity for the members’ wives and members of other clubs to come and socialize. In fact, today it is a general annual meeting where we welcome representatives of other clubs, because one of the principal Rotary values is to visit and connect with our sisters and brothers in our personal lives. Meeting other club members, especially according to the Classification List, i.e.people belonging to the same profession, provides opportunities to form long-standing friendships. At the LadiesNightball we had over seventy guests from clubs in Serbia and abroad spending some quality time with music and dancing during this beautiful weekend. This was also an opportunity to organize an evening charity event to raise funds for the acquisition of laptop computers for elementary schools in Pancevo (one per each school), and so by paying for the dinner we donated the money for this purpose

Another interesting fact is that a Rotarian cannot be under the age of 30. Why is that?

It has its reasons. That is the age when we have become successful at what we do and evolved into leaders in our fields. As stated before, this is also a requirement for anyone to be invited to join a Rotary club. Before joining a Rotary club young people aged 17 to 30 can join a Rotaract club, a kind of an entrance lobby to Rotary, where they are given an opportunity to show themselves in action. Pancevo has the Rotaract Club Pancevothat was voted the best Rotaract club in Serbia two years ago. This is how we get young Rotarians who are gradually getting involved with the world of adults, which comes at the age of 30.

Is Rotary membership hereditary?

It is not hereditary but earned through hard work, ethics and self-development.

How often do you meet?

Since the foundation of the Rotary Club in Pancevo in 1927, when the first meeting was held at Weifert Brewery in Pancevo, we have been meeting every Tuesday at 8 PM and if it’s necessary, we set up additional meetings. We also attend other clubs’ meetings, which is recorded as an activity. There is also a code of conduct, for example we always wear our badges at the club and if we forget to do that, we have to put one hundred dinars into the cash register. If you happen to see us wearing the badge on our lapel or dress in daytime, this means that we have had a meeting and that it is very important for us to be recognized as a Rotarian by a certain individual. This is how we are identified, because we don’t always give out our business cards. When Rotary emblem is seen in public, it means that the person wearing it can have a kind of privilege, for example not having to wait in line, being provided with a higher quality product or service etc., and that is one of the benefits of being a Rotary club member.

Can non-members attend Rotary club meetings? 

Yes, if they are invited. They are usually people interested in helping their local community. This does not make them club members, but they can join the club later, by invitation. Each Rotarian has a mentor, i.e.their Rotary godfather/godmother. I have personally introduced six people into this club, which means that throughout their membership it is my moral obligation to stand behind my decision. So I keep asking myself if I was realistic enough, because we feel that once a person joins Rotary, they remain a member for life. One should never forget that membership places requirements such as regular attendance of meetings, being there and doing quality work. We choose people who are positive and kind, people that we know will enrich our club with their knowledge and participation.

What about your husband? Has he automatically become a member of your Rotary club?

No, neither my husband nor my daughters are members, but they do take part in my activities. Being a Rotarian is not something hereditary, but rather earned through hard work.


How different is the contemporary idea of Rotarianism when compared to the one from a century ago, when the movement was conceived? How is it evolving in the 21stcentury?

The common denominator is the humanitarian act of providing support for the local community. We all need to identify what is needed in our municipality and try to find out how to help by doing something that can’t be done through regular channels. Both historically and today, the main mission has been to provide help and support and I believe that Rotary clubs will have that aim in the future, too. Support, aims and networking will be important in the future. Being recognized as a Rotarian with a badge in public means that you are welcomed with dignity, joy and support. That is one way to advance our businesses and make connections with our brothers and sisters from other clubs, cities and countries.

Are there any celebrities in your club, and do you need that kind of support?

There are no celebrities from the film industry or music business in Pancevo, but there are some in Belgrade, such as Tatjana Olujic, Ivana Mihic, Svetislav Goncic…

The most famous woman Rotarian in the world is Margaret Thatcher, the steel lady who was able to stand up to any man. Who are today’s successful ladies who belong to this movement?

Up until recently, we had the General Manager of Banca Intesa here in Pancevo, and I believe that there are many more but we do not emphasize someone’s popularity. We are all brothers and sisters here, we are fellows – friends if you will, and that precisely is our objective: rather than glorifying individual personalities (whether they come from public life, tabloids or magazine covers) we focus on a person’s work. There are many big patrons and sponsors among us, but modesty is the signature mark of Rotarians. Never praising publicly, but doing so discreetly – probably seems unusual in today’s day and age, but there are still people who appreciate this.