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Most local governments are led by men—this Va. program is trying to change that

Retta Jackson is one of 24 women selected to be part of a program, called the Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute, which teaches leadership skills and empowers women who work in local governments.
Diane Deffenbaugh
/
Virginia Tech
Retta Jackson is one of 24 women selected to be part of a program, called the Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute, which teaches leadership skills and empowers women who work in local governments.

When 31-year-old Retta Jackson began her job as the town manager of Hillsville eight years ago, she found herself working alongside an all-male town council, and a male mayor.

“It was a little bit hard to get people to believe that I was capable of doing the job.”

She oversees nearly 50 employees and a town budget of about $5 million. She said she has a good working relationship with the town’s leadership, but it did take several years to build confidence.

Jackson is one of 24 participants selected to be part of a new program, called the Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute, which teaches leadership skills and empowers women who work in local governments.

17 percent of city, county and town managers in Virginia are women— that’s below the national average, according to a diversity dashboard compiled by the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA).

“One of the things we’ve heard from executive recruiters across the country is, one, people are not seeking local manager jobs like they used to,” said Bonnie Svrcek, who coordinates the Institute. “And even more so they’re not finding that women are even applying for the jobs.”

Svrcek was the former city manager for Lynchburg and Blacksburg, and in 2012-2014 she helped lead a national task force for the ICMA on the future of women in this industry.

She points to data from the private sector that show companies have higher profit margins when they have gender diversity in their leadership, and thinks local governments also benefit when women, not just men, are making decisions.

“When you have inclusive leadership, your communities are stronger,” Svrcek said. She believes the Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute is the only one of its kind on the east coast and based the curriculum on similar programs in the northwest and in Michigan. The trainings take place over an 8-month period. Some sessions are in person and others are virtual, designed to encourage networking and mentorship among women who work in this field.

Participants in the Virginia Women's Municipal Leadership Institute
Diane Deffenbaugh
/
Virginia Tech
Participants in the Virginia Women's Municipal Leadership Institute

“It’s really important to create the kind of relationships that we think will truly last at least a career’s length, when these women can call on one another if they get stuck.”

Retta Jackson said it’s been empowering to connect with other women across Virginia who are local leaders. “I feel this bond with these women. I feel like we’ve come together really quickly.”

Svrcek said they had more than 40 applicants for the first year of the program, and plan to offer the training again next year.

The Institute is a partnership with Virginia Tech, and will be announcing a call for participants for its second year by this December.

Updated: June 28, 2022 at 1:14 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.