This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that coincides with global events in March celebrating the accomplishments of women. This conversation has been edited and condensed.


Sheila Watson credits her upbringing in a working-class community as the basis of her desire to create change, and the study of economics and politics as essential tools to achieving it. As an economist and policy adviser in the United Kingdom’s Labour government for nine years, beginning in the late ’90s, she aimed to address injustice. Now, as deputy director of the FIA Foundation, a London nonprofit, she leads its environmental, gender and research initiatives, working around the world to support safe and sustainable mobility.

What’s the foundation’s goal?

The overarching mission is safe, clean, fair and green mobility. The focus is on personal mobility, but it’s all dimensions of sustainability, from climate and clean air to road safety, accessibility and fairness. We like to link our work to advocacy.

What’s the scope of the work?

It’s global. We’re a philanthropy, so we give money and support to partner organizations in areas where we think we can add value, and that’s often in areas other people are not focused on enough. It can be as wide as looking at what 197 countries are doing to promote nonmotorized modes that do not create emissions, like walking and cycling, or on the ground in one place, like supporting adaptations to infrastructure around schools in Africa, such as painting a new crosswalk or putting in a protected walkway, to make roads safer for children. It’s a long held view of mine, probably based on the fact I spent a long time in government being lobbied, that it’s important that when you advocate for change, you show how it can be done.

Why is that work necessary?

Mobility and transport makes up to about a quarter of emissions, and motorization is projected to triple globally by 2050. Air quality is a major concern in cities, and road crashes are critically high in many parts of the world — it’s the biggest cause of death for young people globally. We want to give options to people to be able to get around and prosper, but we’ve got to address those negative things.

Are there any notable challenges?

It can be difficult to do work where data don’t exist or are poorly kept. You don’t make good policy with bad data. We aid initiatives that encourage good data collection, through our projects like The Real Urban Emissions Initiative (TRUE) that uses real world emissions data to encourage the adoption of clean vehicles, and the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), which supports the development of fuel economy policies across the world and includes a program that focuses on electrification of vehicles. The objective is to share information so that everyone is working with the same numbers and can develop effective policies.

How did your early years inform your career path?

I was brought up in the northeast of England, very working class, very economically deprived, in what in America would be public housing. I was a bright kid at school. I thought there was so much you could know and I wanted to know as much of it as I possibly could. I loved the idea of economics. I saw it as an explanation, alongside politics, of how the world worked. I pursued those subjects right through into university. I went from what you would call public school to Oxford.

Ours was a very political household, so fairness just kind of runs through us. I didn’t know what the injustices necessarily were, but I knew I would quite like to right a few of them. I knew understanding economics and politics was the way you make change.

Did you have any role models?

I had some wonderful teachers, and I was a mad reader. I was inspired by the people in books that I read, namely Kate in Shakespeare’s “Taming of The Shrew.” I loved the way she fought at every turn against what was expected of her. The senior politician I worked for was a woman who taught me a lot about what it is to be professional in the workplace, about getting things done, taking decisions and sticking to them and using facts and evidence, while carrying with you a moral compass of fairness. And I was brought up by a mom and dad who told me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

Was being a woman ever a barrier?

I never, ever thought the fact that I was a girl made me any different. I think I got quite a long way before I started to think my gender was playing a part. I think it creeps up on you that there are people who view you as a woman before they view you as anything else. It makes hard work harder.

What motivates you?

Without question, it’s the partners I work with. And it’s the fact that real progress has been made. Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, who is leading the way on air-quality issues, was re-elected after having introduced a low-emission zone, and Mayor Anne Hidalgo was re-elected after restricting vehicle access to central Paris. This actually shows we may be moving from words to actions. We’re at a crucial moment, and the window is narrowing, and it’s down to us to make change.



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