Women Leaders Insight Series: Charlotte Watts

Charlotte Watts is a professor of epidemiology at LSHTM, and in 2015 was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for International Development in the UK.

In this 'Women Leaders: Insights' series, Prof. Watts discusses her career, inspirations, the WLGH Conference, and gives advice to women embarking on their career.

Describe your current role?
I’m a Professor in Social and Mathematical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and I’m seconded to the UK Department for International Development where I’m their Chief Scientific Advisor.

Who has inspired you throughout your career?
I have had quite a long career, I’ve been working in international health for about 20 years so there’s been various people along the way who’ve inspired me. It tends to be people who I think are knowledgeable, who really are committed to development but also have a good dose of humility in the way that they work and operate. There have also been a few people who have spurred me on because they told me I couldn’t do things and, if anything, that has encouraged me to have a go and try and prove them wrong.

What is the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor?
I received very useful advice from Anne Mills, a Professor here at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine when I had my first child. I had a young baby, I was trying to figure out how to juggle being an academic and raising a baby. What she told me was just not to apologise and to not feel guilty that I might need to leave and go to a parents day or if my child is sick. I might need to draw on the flexibility that academia gives to stay at home to look after my child. It is something that I find myself now repeating to younger staff when they come to me with similar stresses about getting that work-life balance right.

What has been your career highlight?
There are a number of career highlights. I’ve had quite a varied and fun career where I’ve moved from being a theoretical mathematician to working on tackling violence against women to becoming the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor on development. A highlight that is most close to my heart is the research that we have led to show that violence against women is preventable. A key highlight for me was the first trial that we did that showed we can reduce women’s experience of domestic violence by more than a half over two years. We implemented this intervention, we thought it would work, but the size of the impact it had was still surprising to me and I still feel proud about the direct impact that we’ll have had on women’s lives as well as the subsequent studies that we have completed that similarly show we can prevent domestic violence.

What challenges have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them? 
An early challenge I faced was sexism. When I was starting off in mathematics, there were some demeaning statements being made as I was studying maths, doing my PhD in maths. Statements about how women couldn’t be mathematicians and how you couldn’t tackle those sort of complex problems. In that case, I just proved them wrong by continuing and doing quite advanced mathematics.

More recently a challenge that I have overcome is getting the issue of violence against women taken seriously as a public health issue. It has required perseverance and collecting rigorous evidence. Firstly on the scale of violence that women experience and the links to a range of poor health outcomes, and then showing that violence is preventable and doing rigorous evaluation studies that show we can tackle violence.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in global health? 
There are many challenges in global health and it’s hard to identify the biggest one. We have the unfinished business of tackling infectious diseases and diseases of poverty. We have new challenges including linked to urbanisation, the impacts of climate change, new threats like antimicrobial resistance. If I think about the challenge that I would like us to prioritise, it’s all of the elements around global health that aren’t solved by improving health systems. It’s by tackling structural inequalities, poverty, discrimination, gender inequality. To me, they are the ones in global health we should be really focusing on that are not only technical as problems but also require political change and engagement to have an impact.

How important is the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference? 
The Conference is a really important opportunity for women working in global health to come together, to share experience and lessons and to talk about how we can work together as a force to strive for improvements in global health.

In three words, what advice would you give to women embarking on their careers? 
There are three words that I want to give as advice to women working in global health. That is, to follow your passion. If I was allowed another three words, I would also say believe in yourself.

Naomi Stewart