Ada Milby admits becoming the first female President of the Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU) was not on her radar when she relocated to the country in 2012.

Back then the game represented an opportunity to make friends having moved to the Philippines, where her brother Sam is an actor and musician, following a decade of service in the U.S. Army.

Milby was initially “culture shocked” as she realised the challenges local players faced in terms of securing playing equipment and facilities. Her journey in Filipino rugby began with a simple question: “How can I help?” 

It is a query that has remained at the forefront of Milby’s mind as she subsequently juggled playing with roles on the PRFU board, World Rugby Council, as chair of Asia Rugby’s Women’s Advisory Committee, and now President of her home union.

“If you'd asked me when I first started getting into rugby here in the Philippines, if I had aspirations to be the President of the union one day, I would definitely not have said that that was something that I was aspiring to,” Milby told World Rugby. 

“For me, it's a little bit surreal in the sense that I'm still relatively young, the first woman to be the president for the union. 

“But, at the same time, I think it also is a reflection of where the union is as an organisation and how progressive we are and how much we're supporting that… Diverse agenda on development, on promoting our national teams, and, so there's a lot of successes in that.”

Promoting diversity

Milby speaks highly of the work done by her predecessor, Rick Santos, but is conscious of the impact she can have as the union’s first female President.

Although more than 50 per cent of the PRFU’s staff and development officers are women, Milby remains the only female member of the board. She would like the boardroom to be a more diverse place, and not just from a gender perspective.

“The structures that we have in place are already really, really inclusive,” she said.

“One of the things that I would like to do is to have a review of our governance similar to World Rugby and really have a look at our constitution, our bylaws. 

“It was created 20 years ago. Is it still serving us? How can we update it? How can we make it more relevant to what we're trying to achieve now? And in that, I would like to see how we can be more diverse in our board. 

“We currently have only myself as the female, but even in that, all of our board members are from one locality. We represent 7,107 islands and our entire board are all from one. 

“So, I would like to see how we can be a little bit more representative of the archipelago of the Philippines. Being inclusive is not just about diversity of gender, but diversity of region and how we're making sure that we're representing the interests of the entire Philippine community.”

Milby, who has captained the Philippines at both sevens and 15s, has witnessed the benefits of diversity first-hand. 

At the end of 2017, she became the first woman to be appointed to the World Rugby Council, as part of an initial intake of 17 female members the following year.

“By having more women in the room,” she said, “regardless of how much we say or we don't say, I do feel like the conversations that happen in the rooms are different simply by being present.”

Making sound decisions

Milby attributes her success to being willing to help, and says her background — she grew up in Ohio, USA with an American father and Filipino mother — allowed her look at the problems faced by the PRFU through a different lens.

Having excelled at figure skating as a child, Milby spent a year playing American football in high school, experiencing gender discrimination as she competed with boys for a place on the team.

She was introduced to rugby during her first year at university, after which she enrolled in the U.S. Army. Milby rose to the rank of staff sergeant and her service included a tour of Iraq.

“All of the experiences that I've had, if I reflect and I think about it, they've all helped me to prepare for the situations that I take on now,” she said.

“For me, it's about being able to navigate different situations and [asking] how do you manage different personalities? 

“It's not even about men or women specifically. It's just about being able to navigate under time and pressure and to be able to still make sound decisions.”

Milby is keen to help the community game flourish in the Philippines and is also hopeful that she can help to inspire more women to consider positions in leadership.

“The weight that I carry of being the first is there,” she said. “Part of the reason why I also feel that is because how well I do in this capacity now is going to potentially make more space for other women to come through the gate.”

Milby added: “When I first got into American football, I wasn't there to prove anything to anyone, I was just a 15-year-old kid that wanted to play sport. 

“I didn't really think about that, and then I suppose because of that experience, it probably put me on a path that I didn't know I was going to be on, which was to say, ‘Yeah, actually, you shouldn't be held back by your gender to pursue whatever it is that you want to pursue’. 

“Men and women have the same rights to pursue their passions, pursue their dreams and if it means busting some of the social norms or cultural norms to show that should be, then yes.”

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