Nineteen local high school students chosen for a program created by U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren to foster the pursuit of STEM careers received a final lesson Monday from an all-female panel: how to overcome the gender obstacle to succeed in male-dominated professions.
The 19 students, 10 women and nine men, won selection into Hultgren's inaugural STEM scholars program through demonstrated interest in science, technology, engineering or math subjects, such as robotics, math and computer programming. The program took the students on weekly tours to local STEM-oriented businesses for a behind-the-scenes look at potential careers.
On Monday, the students received graduation certificates during a ceremony at FONA International in Geneva.
Aneesa Muthana, president and owner of manufacturing company Addison-based Pioneer Service Inc., urged the female members of the class to not let the male figures in their lives decide their futures for them. Muthana formed her company after leaving a six-figure position at her father's business.
"As girls, we sometimes tend to be in their shadows," she said. "I was not going to have that. I left my father's company for the unknown. I wasn't fortunate to have a formal education, but I knew how to run a business. I had hands-on experience."
Muthana said the old thinking of men having to be the top decision-makers is dying, even in fields still dominated by men.
"Workers, they don't look at you as a woman or a male now," she said. "It's not men versus women. We are on the same team. Men are so used to dominating the industry. But it's not like that anymore. They will see your passion. Lead well, people will follow."
That doesn't mean there aren't still plenty of men who haven't learned to respect female leaders, said Rose of Sharon Devos, the business development manager at Muthana's company. She said a manager at a company in southern Virginia warned her of the sometimes uncomfortable positions she might find herself in because she sought a career in manufacturing.
"He said, 'I have to warn you. There's guys who don't treat women very appropriately. Are you able to hand that?'" Devos recalled. "I'm not easily offended. And not being easily offended is one of the things that have allowed me to succeed. People can really be jerks. Let them be what they are. Don't let that stop you from moving on. Don't be a victim."
Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti urged the students to pursue STEM interests and apply those interests within their home state. She pointed to the 1,800 foreign-based companies and 37 Fortune 500 corporations headquartered in Illinois as examples of outlets that would be interested in their STEM talents.
"These jobs are the jobs of the future," Sanguinetti said. "STEM education is crucial for our nation's economy and workforce development. The room for innovation is vast amongst the numerous industries that run our state. You are the talent who will generate the new ideas of the future, discoveries and new efficiencies that will bolster each area of the state."
STEM: 'Lead well, people will follow'