'There’s not a wall up for women in this industry’
BROKEN ARROW, Okla.—Jennifer Jezek, president of York Electronic Systems, a low voltage provider here, brings a tongue-in-cheek “rhinestone cowgirl” approach to being a woman in a traditionally male industry.
“My team has made me a hot pink hard hat that is bedazzled with “York” on it with rhinestones, and I just sort of embrace it because there’s no way for me to go on a job site and not stick out like a sore thumb,” Jezek told Security Systems News. “It’s just not going to happen, so I might as well embrace it and put on a pink hard hat and go on my way.”
But Jezek said that even though women are a minority in the security/life safety industry, that’s not a barrier to success. “I think people may be skeptical but they’re open,” she said. “There’s not a wall up for women in this industry.”
And she encourages more women to enter the field, because of all the career opportunities it offers. “I feel like the security business and the life safety business are the best kept secret,” she said.
Jezek knew about the industry because she grew up in it—her parents founded York in 1984. But she wanted to explore another career when she graduated from college, so she worked in information technology for large public companies for about six years.
But York drew her back. “I really wanted the opportunity to work somewhere and be involved in something where you could consider the human aspects of the business,” she said.
Her parents retired last year and since Jezek took over, the business—of which about 95 percent of the projects involve fire work—is now 100 percent female-owned and also 100 percent Native American-owned. She’s of Cherokee heritage on her mother’s side, and tribal businesses are an important vertical for the company, which has nearly 40 employees.
Jezek said that starting out, she had to combat some negative stereotypes on the job.
“The perception of me was that I was somebody’s assistant or I was an administrative person … a support person or a secretary. They wouldn’t even consider that I had technical knowledge,” she said. “But I’ve done a lot of things over the past several years really to overcome that, and part of that was getting technical knowledge and understanding our craft and our industry and working on job sites and working alongside the installers so that I could sort of talk the talk and walk the walk.”
And society also is changing in its attitudes toward women, Jezek said. “In the past five or six years, I have noticed a shift in the perception of women in the industry and in the way that I am received,” she said. She added, “When I go to events and conferences now I start to see more and more female faces and that’s really encouraging because that’s showing our industry is maturing and growing.”
Women are a boon to the industry, Jezek said. “There are a lot of natural relationship skills that women have that are very important in business in general … [and also] in the security industry as it matures. We do have strong negotiating skills, we do have a strong sense of relationship and being able to bring issues to resolution and just a different perspective and approach,” she said.
And women are needed as workers, because “there’s a massive shortage of skilled workers in the United States,” particularly in the security and construction industries, she said. “So, finding quality workers just by demographic is important,” Jezek said. “It’s going to need to be women.”
She said a way to attract more women to the field is by reaching out to students at the elementary and high school levels through such programs as Junior Achievement, as York already does. “The only way we’re going to grow our work force and our pool of really qualified, specialized people that are really needed to work in this industry is by getting to them very young. That is definitely not a short-term fix … but I hope that’s going to be a way to open those careers and paths,” Jezek said.