For nearly 50 years, Miami alumna has helped women break ceilings

By Jesús F. Jiménez, assistant director of digital content

After graduating from Miami University, Sharon Mitchell ’73 joined the 2% of female chemists and engineers working in Procter & Gamble’s Research and Development organization.

She was met with the mindset that training women would be a waste of time; it was assumed they wouldn’t last long as they would leave if they ever became pregnant.

“It just made us more persistent,” Sharon said. “It helped us find each other across the company, because then only 1 or 2% of the research and development organization were professional women.”

By the time Sharon retired as senior vice president of the department in 2009, at least 50% of new hires and 40% of vice presidents in the organization were women.

Sharon’s persistence has empowered women everywhere she’s been, including her alma mater, where she serves as the board chair of the Miami University Foundation, and in 2014, she co-founded the M.I.A.M.I. WOMEN initiative, along with Susan Naus ’67, Diane Perlmutter ’67, Sue Henry ’73 and then University Ambassador Valerie Hodge.

The Miami Initiative for Advancing, Mentoring and Investing in Women is a university-wide initiative that works with alumni, campus offices and student groups in its efforts to encourage and support opportunities for women. Its two signature events, Hawk Tank and Leadership Symposium, will be held in Oxford on April 28-29, 2022. Registration opens on March 17.

“I’ve always had a passion for women in leadership,” Sharon said. “This was an opportunity to create leadership opportunities within academia.”

‘Nobody was going to tell me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do’

Ever since her teens, Sharon was inspired by a female chemistry teacher she had in high school.

“She was supportive of everyone in the class and she inspired us. ‘You can do whatever you want to do,’” Sharon remembers her teacher saying. “‘You can go into research, you can go into teaching – you can go into anything you want – but if you love chemistry, stick with it.’”

Sharon loved chemistry, but she wasn’t sure how it applied in the world outside of academic research. She saw just how useful it was through her undergraduate research experience under her chemistry professor, Dr. James Pyle.

They worked together with a local Poison Control Center where patients would arrive after taking drugs contaminated with unknown substances. Sharon was tasked with studying the drug samples and found that many were laced with dangerous chemicals, such as commercial drain cleaners. She created a library of the samples and contaminants, so doctors could find the best way to treat patients.

“It was a really exciting independent study project for me, and I felt like I was making a difference,” Sharon said.

“I was so excited and so on fire about that research experience. Nobody was going to tell me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.”

‘Men just didn’t know how to interact with professional women colleagues’

That mindset followed Sharon to Procter & Gamble – and everywhere.

“At the start of my career, I found that men really just didn’t know how to interact with professional women colleagues,” Sharon said. “When I first joined P&G, the men who were running the organization, had wives that had never worked, they had no female colleagues from their university experience that worked, and their daughters didn’t work. The concept of professional working women was foreign to them. Fast forward about 10 years later, their daughters wanted to work, so they would say to me, ‘My daughter wants to become a chemist in R and D – will you talk to her?’

“Fast forward another 10 years, and the organization had several women leaders. And the male leaders had wives and daughters who worked professionally. What a difference that made!”

Gradually, career opportunities for women expanded.

Later in her career, Sharon led an international organization of 1,500 scientists and engineers located in 10 countries. As an inventor, she has been granted four U.S. and three international patents. Sharon was one of the first women to reach each successive level of management within Procter & Gamble, and she was a founding member of the Leadership Team of Senior R&D Women and of P&G’s Women’s Health Council.

Sharon’s local and national civic involvements have included serving on the Children’s Home of Cincinnati Board of Trustees, including as board chair; Impact 100 Board, including as president; the University of Colorado Anschutz Health & Wellness Center Advisory Board; Cincinnati “Wise 100 Women”; the YWCA Career Women of Achievement Academy; Cincinnati Nature Center; American Red Cross Cincinnati Chapter Board of Trustees; the United Way Alexis de Tocqueville Society; and the United Way of Cincinnati Cabinet.

She has been recognized as a YWCA Career Woman of Achievement and was named the 2015 Cincinnati Enquirer Woman of the Year.

‘We’ve all got so much in common’

Sharon re-engaged with Miami through the Research Advisory Council and was a founding member of the College of Arts and Science Advisory Council. She also served as both the vice chair and board chair of the Miami University Board of Trustees.

During her term as president of Impact 100, Sharon attended the National Conference of Giving Circles, where she learned that, for the first time in history, women were starting to come into control of their wealth and had the opportunity to make philanthropic decisions.

Tom Herbert, Miami’s SVP of Advancement, was seeing the same trends. This inspired the creation of M.I.A.M.I. WOMEN. The inaugural Women in Leadership Symposium was held in 2014, and the M.I.A.M.I. WOMEN Giving Circle was introduced in 2018. Since then, close to half a million dollars has funded significant causes and programs at Miami through collective giving. These programs range from social entrepreneurship and experiential learning to student organizations and learning opportunities.

If you are interested in joining the effort, you can do so anytime. If you are curious about learning more, the Leadership Symposium will be held at Miami’s Armstrong Student Center on April 29.

“All women in the Miami University community are invited to come to the symposium and to start networking with this amazing group of women,” Sharon said. “The great thing is that it links the alumni to the students to the faculty to the staff – and we’ve all got so much in common. If women have the capacity to donate, they will see inspirational stories of what the M.I.A.M.I WOMEN Giving Circle money has been able to do. And if they don’t yet have the capacity to give at the thousand-dollar level, that’s OK. We still welcome them and their involvement.”