As town manager of Hillsville, Retta Jackson is often the only woman in the room where town business is being discussed.
“No matter how much we have progressed from the past, there are still men who think because you’re a woman in a room full of men, you need to be the one to make and serve them coffee,” Jackson said. “I do believe I have gained respect in places where I did not previously have it, but there is always more work to be done.”
Jackson oversees the administration, zoning, utilities, sanitation, tourism, police, and other departments in the small Southwest Virginia town, about an hour southwest of Blacksburg. She sometimes still faces skepticism that she can run the town.
She’s not the only woman facing such hurdles. Across the commonwealth, just 16 percent of top government positions are held by women, according to Local Government Diversity Dashboard.
Bonnie Svrcek, the former assistant town manager of Blacksburg and the first female city manager of Lynchburg before her retirement in 2020, said that number is unacceptable. Working with the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center and Virginia Women Leading Government, a chapter of the International City/County Management Association’s SheLeadsGov initiative, Svrcek developed a leadership program to cultivate a pipeline of women ready to step into municipal management.
“It is critical for communities to have leadership that reflects the demographic of their towns, cities, and counties. Inclusive leadership makes for better decision-making and therefore stronger communities,” Svrcek said.
The Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute is designed to build leadership skills, and even more important, Svrcek said, to build confidence skills among women to even apply for the jobs. “We need to make women see that we’re all on a lifelong learning journey. Women tend to want to check all the boxes before they apply for a job, but some things we learn by doing.”
The institute’s first cohort is made up of 24 women from a broad range of municipal roles and responsibilities. Svrcek said the program is the first in the southeast and only the fifth in the country to focus on female municipal leadership.
The women will participate in eight monthly gatherings, alternating between virtual and in-person sessions around the state including meeting at Virginia Tech’s Commonwealth Campus Centers in Newport News and Richmond. Along with the Roanoke Center, they are all part of Outreach and International Affairs.
Virginia Tech faculty members and other experts help develop the women’s leadership skills, providing workshops on topics incorporating both technical duties such as budgeting and “soft skills” such as public speaking and work-life balance.
“Those are skills you absolutely need, but they don’t get taught in public administration school or City Manager School 101,” Svrcek said.
Kimberly Carlson, an associate professor of practice in the Pamplin College of Business, and Charity Boyette, a doctoral student in public administration, led a half-day session on leadership versus management. Stephanie Davis, an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, offered a virtual session on public budgeting in Virginia. Greg Justice, an associate professor in the School of Performing Arts, will lead a workshop on presentation skills and executive communications.
“The Virginia Women’s Municipal Leadership Institute was a natural fit for the Roanoke Center and builds on our diverse portfolio of leadership programs. It’s a wonderful example of the ways we help share the expertise of Virginia Tech to build stronger communities across the commonwealth, from connecting faculty experts to providing support with program logistics and registration,” said Scott Weimer, executive director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives.
Tangela Innis, the deputy city manager of Petersburg, Virginia, leads a staff of more than 530 employees and a city budget of over $100 million. But she still finds advocating for herself to be a challenge. She came to the institute to increase her confidence and build a network of women she can bounce ideas off of.
“Sometimes it can be lonely not having a community to discuss things with,” Innis said.
Creating those connections is a key component of the institute. As they work and learn together over several months, the women bond with their classmates creating relationships they can learn from and lean on throughout their careers.
Jackson, the Hillsville town manager, agrees. “Being around other strong women is so empowering. Knowing that you have that group of women who have your back, as we all grow together, is something I thought I could only dream of having.”