Lt. Jen Lescallett tells participants in the Future Women Leaders in Law Enforcement program about her work as chief flight officer with the helicopter unit. (Jim Barnes/For The Washington Post)

A group of 32 teenage girls from Northern Virginia received an introduction to career opportunities in law enforcement last month in a week-long program conducted by the Fairfax County Police Department.

Dozens of law enforcement personnel, most of whom were women, gave demonstrations and discussed their careers with the high school students. The program offered leadership and team-building activities, classes on defensive tactics and firearms safety, and sessions on law enforcement tasks ranging from traffic stops to homicide investigations.

The police department started the Future Women Leaders in Law Enforcement program last year as part of a long-term effort to boost the number of women in its ranks. About 13 percent of Fairfax County’s police officers are women, a percentagethat is in line with the nationwide average, said Tracey Ryan, the program’s coordinator.

Ryan, a longtime volunteer with the police department who runs the Citizens’ Police Academy, said in an interview that she had been surprised to learn that women comprised such a small percentage of police officers.

“I never sensed that there was such a vast discrepancy between women and men in the force . . . and in the last 25 years we’ve only come [up] 41 / 2 percentage points,” Ryan said. “I wanted to do something to address that.”

Ryan came up with the idea of a leadership academy for teenage girls that would highlight career opportunities and focus on women in law enforcement.

She submitted a proposal to the department’s top officials, modeling the program after the Citizens’ Police Academy, except that it takes place in one week, Monday through Saturday, rather than over the course of 10 weeks.

“I took a concept that I have been very passionate about, and have been involved with for 10 years, and morphed it into this program,” she said.

Ryan said she received “100 percent support” from the department, and she launched the academy last year with a class of 38 high school girls from Fairfax County. This year, the field was expanded to include girls who live outside Fairfax.

Through the week, The girls visited department facilities and learned about the helicopter division, the K9 and child exploitation units, and SWAT. In one session, they heard case studies detailing how detective work at crime scenes led to solving the crimes.

One panel of speakers discussed employment opportunities in federal agencies, including the FBI, CIA, Secret Service and military.

The speakers talked frankly about the challenges women face in law enforcement. Pfc. Shannon Briney, a flight officer and paramedic with the Helicopter Division, told the students that female officers have an advantage in some situations, such as helping a traumatized child.

“Who do children want to talk to when they’re scared? They usually want females,” she said. “Just by our nature, we don’t look aggressive and overbearing, and sometimes that’s half of communication.

“I don’t have that big, burly command presence, and that’s okay,” she added. “I can make up for it in other ways if I need to, by my voice, by my confidence, and how I talk to people.” Sometimes that is what is needed to defuse a situation, she said.

Several program participants said they are considering careers in law enforcement.

“I really want to be behind the scenes and help people,” said Mikayla Sova, of Gainesville. Sova, a senior at Battlefield High School, said her favorite session “was probably when the psychologist came in and they told us what they have to deal with.”

Ryan said it will be several years before she is able to evaluate the program’s effectiveness as a recruiting tool. In April, she organized a networking session for the graduates of last year’s academy. Only five attended, but all are currently in college, on tracks toward careers in law enforcement, she said.

“It’s a long-term process that we’ve started,” Ryan said.

Barnes is a freelance writer.