Women Leaders Insight Series: Claire Bayntun

Claire Bayntun is Director of Global Leadership Programmes at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine & Honorary Consultant in Global Health at Public Health England.

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

Describe your current role?
My title is Director of Global Leadership Programmes here at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and I am also a Honorary Consultant in Global Public Health at Public Health England.

In practice I am a clinician, specialised in public health, and I am focused on strengthening leadership amongst health leaders around the world. I’m also a Trustee at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Who has inspired you throughout your career?
As a young woman, I experienced being in countries across the world before settling in West Africa, and then I returned to the UK to work in the National Health Service, working with dedicated colleagues, and went on to specialise in Public Health.

The journey I have travelled has shown me the richness of people. I get pleasure that diversity of culture and working with people from different sections of society. It’s those differences between us, and the fact that some aspects of who we are [as humans] are the same. All of that I find inspiring and refreshes me in what I do.

All of this makes me look to the horizon - it’s important to have our goals, but to be willing to revisit our ambitions. When you do that, when you liberate the mind, anything is possible.

What is the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor?
I received two pieces of advice - things that made me think at a critical time in my life, when I was about 12 years old. And these are – ‘Keep your head down and remember who you are.’ And the second was ‘Never lose your spontaneity.’

It’s the association of who gave me those words, and when, that has had a real impact. The first, Keep your head down and remember who you are,’ was about believing in yourself, don’t be daunted, know that you can succeed. That came to me when I was sitting a scholarship exam to boarding school and I had to board as part of the assessment. I received a postcard whilst I was there from the headmaster of my current school with those words. That’s all it said: Keep your head down and remember who you are’. Those words stay with me and keep me focused on the tasks ahead.

The second, which is ‘Never lose your spontaneity’, came to me from a teacher that I had remained in correspondence with, and he sent that through as a note accompanied by a framed photo of a leaping dolphin, delivered by a colleague of his. Sadly, this teacher passed away shortly after delivering that to me, so again it stays with me. The impact of that is that I recognised our life is a journey, and that we’re here for a short time. I find it quite liberating to recognise that, and it’s important to take the opportunity, at times, to enjoy some spontaneity - whether it’s creativity, whether it’s humour - to make the most of the present that we’re living in.

What has been your career highlight?
My career highlight has been becoming a parent. I have found that it has enriched my working life. Having that balance between parenthood and my work - they keep each other in check. I find that the experience of parenthood is humbling. I have learnt an awful lot about myself, but it’s also very refreshing in terms of your perspective towards work.

I work as an Executive Coach and I coach health leaders from around the globe. What is universally an issue is parenting, whether you’re male or whether you’re female - how do you make the decisions? There’s always a feeling it is going to have a huge impact on careers. When do you proceed, and take those next steps with the career planning that you’re also doing?

When an employer is able to offer flexibility, in terms of hours, in terms of parental leave, then that decision-making is easier, and it allows that employer to get the very best from the workforce collectively.

My husband, who’s a Consultant Paediatrician and an Academic, went part-time to allow me to return to work full-time when we had our first child.

I find it inspiring that there is another generation coming, and another, and another. There’s a perspective, which is a population perspective, and it allows you to keep looking beyond just the here and now.

What challenges have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them? 
To progress in your career, I have learnt that you need to know yourself, you need to know your values, and you need to draw on those as strengths when you need them.

When you come across barriers, you have options available to you. If we assume a political issue, your options are: you work with the issue, you circumvent the issue, or, you work hard to push through the agenda that you are responsible to deliver - knowing that your plans are supported by others and that you’ve got your facts straight. And if you’re going to do that last one, you need a good dollop of resilience in your coffee in the mornings!

When you face challenges, it’s really important to know your values, and that will give you the strength and the certainty of how to make your decisions, and how to progress. You are not going to be dictated by other people’s perspective of you.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in global health? 
I would identify the inequity between the global North and South as the greatest challenge to global health. This is across all sectors that impact on the health of communities, such as global wealth and financial flows. There is a distance between those who are making the decisions - at the global policy level - and the communities that they serve.

How important is the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference? 
The Conference is very important; it represents a movement in the current time. Women are more willing to be outspoken about the barriers they face, and about the inequities and scenarios that they have to manage. I think now women are encouraged to speak out - following the #MeToo movement and other revelations that have come out in from the humanitarian world - so this really is the time to seize the opportunities.

Dr Tedros, Director-General of the WHO, is an alumnus of the School, and he has made it explicit to have women leaders within his team at the WHO.

The support that the Conference offers is something which delivers ripples. It’s concentric circles going out, that move across immediate contacts, across communities, and across the population.

The conference acts as the stone that’s being thrown into the water to again set off those ripples for another year.

What role can men play in working towards ensuring gender equity in global health leadership?

The movement to achieve gender equity benefits from mutual support. There are roles for men, as well as women, in the health sphere to move this agenda forward and there is enormous power in collective action. There is a huge role to be played in calling out, and not just looking the other way.

In three words, what advice would you give to women embarking on their careers? 
Three words that will make a difference in many, many contexts are: Know your values.

Claire Bayntun is Programme Director for the Executive Programme for Global Health Leadership at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, a unique 10 month programme that offers experienced health professionals the opportunity to develop their personal leadership skills and professional networks.

Sarah Cowen-Rivers