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Feature: A woman’s work

4 March 2014

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The challenges faced by women in the workplace are felt no matter what your profession, so businesswoman of the year Julie Kenny shares her thoughts and wisdom garnered over the last three decades
There is barely a day that goes by that you don’t here about unequal pay for women, not enough women in boardrooms or a glass ceiling that must be broken, and with the majority of practice managers being women we thought we’d speak to Businesswoman of the Year Julie Kenny so she can pass on her pearls of wisdom gathered during her long career in the security industry.
You know thatlittle sensor in the corner of the ceiling, with a blinking red light that people with burglar alarms have? Well Julie’s security alarm company, Pyronix invented that. 
In October Julie became the 31st winner of the Vitalise Businesswoman of the Year, joining previous winners Karren Brady of BBC’s The Apprentice fame and Dragon’s Den favourite Hilary Devey. She won in recognition of her work building up one of the UK’s largest security electronics firms, with a turnover of £18 million, 150 staff, two factories in Rotherham and exports to 70 countries, from scratch. 
Julie was brought up near Hillsborough, South Yorkshire in what she describes as an “impoverished” setting. Her parents divorced when she was five and she and her mother moved in with a “step-dad”. At 18 Julie decided she had to change her life and with £45 in her purse she moved to Bodmin, Cornwall “as it was as far away from Sheffield as I could get”. She went for an interview the afternoon she arrived in the West Country.
as a junior secretary in a legal firm and got the job.
“I discovered I had an aptitude for law and I got the opportunity to train. I went to work for Cornwall’s local authority and so after ten years of part-time study I became a lawyer and practiced civil litigation.” 
She then moved to Aylesbury local authority to head up their civil litigation authority and it was there that she met Mr Kenny… who was from Sheffield.
“Having said that I would never go back to Sheffield – guess where I ended up? 
“So I went back to Sheffield and I got married and with in five weeks Paul had been made redundant.
“He worked in external lighting and wanted to develop an internal system. He wanted to design passive infra red receiver (the aforementioned blinking light) but he didn’t have any money and I had my house so I sold it, raised £28,500 and we started a company,” she said.
For the first three years Julie worked in a private law firm in Rotherham by day and their company Pyronix for the rest of the time. Then in 1989 she became managing director for Pyronix full-time, with Paul as chief executive with the technical know-how.
“Paul left after 11 years and at the time I was managing director and I bought him out which was unusual for a women. So since 1997 I’ve been running the business,” said Julie, who divorced at that time. 
In 1992 she became the first women director of the British Security Industry Association and later the first female chairwoman. “Security was and still is to a large extent very male dominated. In fact the first meeting I went to was in a gentleman’s club, and we had to meet in an ante room as I wasn’t allowed in. That changed very quickly,” says Julie, 56.
Julie admits that the fact she was the only woman in the room did occupy her thoughts in the early days of her career.
“Women think differently to men and we are different. In the early days I used to think about it a lot. I joined public boards to work on regeneration and at that time you were the token women as the government said there had to be women on the board. If they thought I was a token woman they certainly didn’t think so for long. I have always tried to be true to what I think and say what I think.” 
Julie urges women to get involved in male dominated environments and pinpoints two areas where she thinks women have the edge.
“I think women are never afraid to ask if they don’t know something whereas I think men would feel more inhibited. I don’t think men ask the silly questions and women do. I’d be prepared to ask a second question if I still didn’t understand and that allows more in-depth discussion. And if I didn’t understand it chances are others wouldn’t.
“Men would take more risks. I’m not saying they are gung-ho, but they do take risks. Had there been more women in banking at the time when they had all their problems at the start of the recession, I absolutely believe there would have been better decision-making because you’ve got that balance. You may well have been outvoted but at least you would have had a debate and the decision would have been more robustly taken.”
What about those stereotypes of women in power using their looks to get by or being overtly aggressive?
“I think that’s probably where it used to be. Often my passion is mistaken for aggression.”
Times have changed since Julie started out, she highlights the increase number of women in business and on boards as significant areas. 
“Women aren’t now token women; they are there for their skills and what they bring to the party.”
But there is still a way to go.
“I don’t think women rise up the management scale as quickly as they could or ought. There is still an issue of employing women of childbearing age. And shamefully it happens as much with women managers and interviewers as it does with men. It’s a problem for all employers. The legislation has taken away the ability for an employer to discuss with women what their true plans are, and this is one area where I completely disagree with the law. 
“If I’ve got a woman that I want to develop in my business I will sit down and talk to them about their family plans. Because it’s absolutely vital that if a women chooses to have a baby that she’s got that absolute right to do it. 
“I’ve three children and my life has been blessed by that but it hasn’t made me a worse boss or a worse provider of value to my business. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been the boss, but it’s also made me think that women in my business, if they want children, should be absolutely free to have them when they want. However if they want a career and want to come back then it’s also right that they tell you what their plans are and that you work together and you can plan.”
Julie is also interested but conflicted about the idea of quotas for women on boards.
“A quota sometimes means you don’t get the best people and then that gives women a bad name or you get the same women, if she’s good, on lots of boards and that’s not right either. But we are not seeing enough progress,” says Julie who is on seven or eight boards and is chair of her company to allow her more time to focus on this voluntary work which largely centred around regeneration of Sheffield.
Julie has also been involved with GP practices as she was asked in 2007 to chair the patient liaison group, which she did for three years.
“They had three practices and were considering closing one – it was only a mile away and it need major refurbishment. As a businesswoman I understood, but for patients in meant an extra distance to travel. I don’t think it made a massive difference but at least patients felt they were being represented. It was a great idea but it needed to be more detail-focused.  
“We tried a few new thing such as opening in the morning and the evening for those who worked, and that was before the Government pushed for it. We tried ways of stopping missed appointments through printing figures in a newsletter and trying to shame people into coming.”
“I was surprised about several aspects of general practice. I think the whole issue of availability of appointments and the amount of targets and box-ticking that the GP surgeries needed to do was strange. I didn’t understand that people living longer was putting more strain on the services, it’s not something I had appreciated turning up occasionally.”