March 8 is International Women’s Day, where women’s achievements are celebrated around the world. To celebrate, we’re shining a spotlight on Associate Vice President of MSU Human Resources (HR), Sharon Butler. From working for General Motors (GM) to the banking industry to higher education, Butler has been in human resources for over three decades. We sat down with her to get her perspective on women in the workplace and her advice for the next generation.
During Butler’s time in higher education, she served as the Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Cincinnati, as well as in similar HR leadership roles at Wayne State University. She came to MSU in 2012 and has been the woman in charge of MSU HR since. But Butler began her career in HR in the mid-’70s at GM, working her way up from a machine operator to a frontline supervisor and finally to HR. She began working at GM at a time not long on the heels of the Civil Rights Act, quite often finding herself the only woman and minority in the room and in leadership. “At the time I began working for General Motors, most of the people who were in leadership positions were white, World War II veterans,” said Butler. “My first salary job was as a frontline supervisor, and at that time there were no other women supervising at the plant I was in, and only about four or five African American men supervising. There were several thousand employees who worked at that location.” In fact, it would be 10 years until Butler worked in an environment with other women in leadership roles.
Everyone faces obstacles in the workplace and sometimes they leave lasting marks. But how you overcome those obstacles can leave an even greater, and hopefully more positive, impact. From her time at GM, Butler learned the best way to overcome obstacles is to find a way to work together. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit you need help; communicate you’re teachable, but also be sure to make it clear what you can bring to the table to get the job done. “I don’t have to broadcast I’m the leader, but that I’m willing to work with others to get things done…It is better to confess what I don’t know, ask for help, and be willing to negotiate with others,” says Butler.
Another key is confidence – be confident in who you are, what you know and how you feel and express yourself. The presence of confidence, not arrogance, shows you are willing to learn and open to listening.
In particular, women in the workplace are often faced with what has become known as the glass ceiling, which is an invisible barrier that “prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions” (Merriam-Webster, 2019).
Butler’s advice to women facing the glass ceiling:
- Be confident, but not arrogant, and teachable.
- Act like you want the position.
- Use your voice to make yourself known.
- Show your supervisor and/or leadership you are ready for a higher-level position.
- Set your personal values and stick to them, no matter the cost. This could even mean not getting the result you want but helping to make a way for those coming after you.
Looking to the future for women in the workplace, Butler’s advice is to find ways to encourage women, give them opportunities to grow, listen and make them feel included. Most of all, Butler hopes for a future for women where they have the freedom to make the choices best for them without guilt – whether that means having a full-time career or a family or everything in-between.