Iryna Arkhytska applied for World Rugby’s Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship programme in hope rather than expectation.
Arkhytska, who is the only woman on the 15-member National Rugby Federation of Ukraine (NRFU) board, had originally put her name forward alongside two national sevens team players.
Playing commitments in Dubai meant that neither player was able to meet the deadline, however, leaving Arkhytska as the sole Ukrainian in contention.
And having been selected as one of 14 recipients in March, she intends to use her scholarship to help produce a transformative impact on rugby in her homeland.
“I don’t know if I have a right to say it and to share these emotions but at first I was confused when I applied because I have never played rugby and I have been working in rugby union for [only] three and a half years,” the Ukrainian explained.
But soon confusion turned to elation when it became clear that her application had indeed been successful. “At first I didn’t believe my eyes,” Arkhytska added. “Sometimes I still can’t believe it.”
Balancing the board
That might be true but she has since grasped the opportunity it has presented with both hands.
Aided by her mentor, Rugby Australia’s Head of Women’s Rugby and Participation Jilly Collins, and Katie Sadleir, General Manager for Women’s Rugby at World Rugby, Arkhytska embarked on a whirlwind 12-day trip of Oceania that took in stops in Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.
Once home Arkhytska gave a presentation titled ‘Balancing the Board’ on the need for greater diversity at the NRFU, and she is due to start a management and leadership course at MIM-Kyiv in November.
Her speech at the NRFU was such a success that the union has vowed to make improving the diversity of its organisation a tenet of its next four-year strategy, which will be voted on in 2020.
“Considering the fact that all the members of the Ukrainian rugby federation board are men and such issues have never been discussed on the general meetings or in official meetings, I was expecting a kind of surprise,” Arkhytska said.
“But my male colleagues embraced positively this information and it was decided that balancing the board will be a part of the Ukrainian rugby strategy for the next four years.
“We are preparing it now because next year we have our general conference which is held once every four years, and we are going to vote for this strategy and balancing the board will be part of this strategy.
“We discussed that in our situation it will not be like establishing some quotas for women on the board, it will be more about paying more attention to talented and high-qualified women who are able to contribute to the future of the game in Ukraine.
“We have to increase awareness and give opportunities and support to these talented women.”
Exchanging ideas on dream trip
Arkhytska’s presentation came on the back of her “breathtaking” yet “tough” trip to the southern hemisphere which was highlighted by the inaugural Oceania Rugby Women’s Leadership Workshop in Fiji, and a trip to the two Australia v New Zealand double-headers at Optus Stadium and Eden Park.
“It was breathtaking, it was awesome,” she said of the two-week tour.
“But a long visit – I have to be honest – it was really tough because it’s 12 days, three countries, seven flights, so many people, so many conversations, so many accents.
“I’m not a native speaker, I have been learning English for three maybe almost four years.
“I had to analyse [what people were saying], I had to think about questions, about information that I would like to get from them and it’s like an exchange of experience.
“It was like a non-stop marathon for 12 days. It was so great an experience, when I came back home I was thinking in English!
“This experience is really a dream for everyone who is relevant to rugby around the world.
“It’s not only about Ukraine. To be part of the rugby society of such great countries where rugby is so popular, where rugby is like a religion, like a culture, like breathing – it’s amazing.”
Attending the workshop in Nadi gave Arkhytska the opportunity to meet fellow scholarship recipients Cybele Druma, Regina Lunyolo, Vela Naucukidi, Jane Schmidt and Cate Sexton as well as Fiji national team player Litia Naiqato, one of the Unstoppables in World Rugby's 'Women in Rugby' campaign.
Learning to say yes
Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle and New Zealand Rugby’s Chief Operating Officer Nicki Nicol, meanwhile, were keynote speakers at the three-day event.
“What I felt when I came into the room where that workshop was held, was that friendly environment was really thoroughly felt, and from the first sight I understood that all the participants would be my friends by the end of the workshop,” Arkhytska said.
“I was deeply impressed by the presentations of all of them, of all the participants and despite the fact that every presentation was unique it struck me that all the women around the world have similar challenges and obstacles and similar values and dreams.”
Castle’s speech struck a particular chord with the Ukrainian administrator.
“One of her [Castle’s] messages was for me very special,” Arkhytska explained.
“She said ‘If you get some exceptional proposal or opportunity in your life but you are not confident or not sure enough about your opportunity to manage it, or you are afraid of it, always say yes and then you will think about the way you will manage it’.
“It was great, for me it is now an historical quote! It’s very useful for my life.”