How do you get more women into leadership positions? One southern Utah event aims to train them.

One nonprofit estimates it has trained 450 women to run for political office over the past nine years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Jones, CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute, in 2018.

St. George • Ever since moving to Hurricane from San Jose, Calif., three years ago, Barbara Lopez has wanted to contribute to the community by becoming more politically active and civically engaged.

Now that her children are grown and she and her husband, Raul, are empty nesters, Barbara says the timing is finally right to act on her desires.

“I’ve kind of run out of excuses,” she said. “Before I start, though, I feel I need some tips and encouragement from women who are leaders in that effort and can advise me where to start and in what capacity.”

For Lopez and other women who share her aspirations, help is on the way. Utah Tech University is hosting “The Urgency of Women’s Leadership: Discover Your Why, Discover Your Way,” which begins Thursday evening and wraps up Friday afternoon.

Sponsored by the Southern Utah University’s Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service, Utah Tech, Utah Women Run, and the Women’s Leadership Institute, the two-day series aims to inspire and empower women to take on leadership roles in their communities and beyond.

Women in Utah are underrepresented in leadership positions. In August, WalletHub released its “2023′s Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality,” which rates states based on the workplace environment, education, health and political empowerment. Utah finished dead last — scoring nearly 55 points lower than the 73.54 tallied by Hawaii, the top state in the survey.

For former Utah legislator Pat Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute, the ranking serves as a reminder of why she decided to head up the nonprofit 9 years ago.

“We were struggling to attract talent to the state of Utah,” said Jones, who logged 14 years in the Utah Legislature before taking on her current role in 2014. “We had relatively few women in senior positions, on boards or in politics. So even though our economy was quite robust, we were struggling to attract talent to some degree because of the perception some people had about women in Utah.”

Jones said the institute has trained women in career development for six years and estimates the nonprofit has trained nearly 450 women to run for political office over the past nine years. Utah Women Run, a nonpartisan initiative hosted by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, is also engaged in training and empowering women for public service and leadership in communities.

Nina Barnes, former Cedar City Council member and current board member for Utah Women Run, says it would be a mistake to conclude the state is not making headway.

For example, only 40 women attended the first training session her organization conducted in southern Utah. But one of the attendees was Donia Jessop, who was later elected as Hildale mayor and is currently serving a second term in the formerly polygamous community.

Jessop is one of six woman mayors in Washington County. The others are St. George Mayor Michele Randall, Hurricane Mayor Nanette Billings, Rockville Mayor Pam Leach, Springdale Mayor Barbara Bruno and Virgin Mayor Jean Krause.

Jones and Barnes are optimistic women will be even better represented in the future — not just in nonpartisan municipal races but in county, state and federal elections, as well as on boards and other senior leadership positions. Moreover, they are hoping to build off of last year’s women’s leadership event at Utah Tech, which sold out.

Barbara Annis, an internationally renowned expert on gender intelligence will kick off Thursday’s reception at 6 p.m. with a presentation about how women’s and men’s brains are wired differently, and how those differences are complementary with respect to leadership. That will be followed by an interactive panel discussion about the unique skills and contributions women can bring to leadership roles in southern Utah communities and organizations.

Friday’s event, which starts at 8:30 a.m., will focus on exploring various leadership pathways women can pursue and will feature panel discussions, audience conversations and stories recounted by a variety of speakers, including Southern Utah University President Mindy Benson, Snow College President Stacey Yardley McIff, St. George Mayor Randall, former Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson-Edwards and Natalie Gochnor, director of the Kem C, Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

Women and men are welcome to attend the two-day training conference. Registration is at https://wliut.com/tuwl-southern-utah-2023/.