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CLS: Promoting gender balance in leadership roles by example

The 20×20 campaign to promote the visibility of women in sport was a resounding success in 2020 – and the tagline, “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”, is just as applicable to women in other areas of life, including the business world. The Level Project, from Enterprise Ireland, aims to increase the number of women in leadership in all sectors, recognising that women in senior management are effective role models for female employees coming through the ranks – proving, in effect, that leadership is just as much an option for women as it is for anybody else who works hard and has that ambition.

A company that has proved that for many years is CLS, Ireland’s largest contract laboratory, which supplies microbiological and analytical testing and trained lab analysts on contract to the food, environmental, pharma and MedTech industries. The company was founded by Evelyn O’Toole in 1994, a then 25-year-old environmental graduate who had worked two and a half years in industry before losing her job suddenly thanks to a fire. Because jobs were scarce in the West of Ireland at that time, she decided to go it alone.

“I didn’t really have any fear because I was oblivious to risk,” explains Evelyn. “From the start it was about surrounding myself with people, so my knowledge could be bolstered by theirs. My aim was to create a job for myself, to design my own future and be able to live in the West of Ireland. The other part was to build a platform where others with the same vision could come and join me.”

Evelyn proved incredibly successful in her endeavours – CLS now has 235 employees, and this year has a turnover in excess of €23 million. They are now the go-to company for multinational companies that want the help of skilled analysts to set up and keep them safe; the company also has FDA approval, allowing them to test products for the US market. Currently, they have a presence on 18 sites across Ireland, along with their own premises in Ros Muc and Galway City.


Harmonious working environment

Striving for gender balance has come naturally for Evelyn as a female CEO, but rather than a political issue, she regards it as vital for a healthy business environment. “I have always aimed for harmony as I just think it’s natural, that we should treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they are. If everyone does their job really well, it makes us very solid as a company.”

“Because I was a female CEO, and coincidentally two of my first director appointments were female, I think we became a go-to company for a lot of female applicants. With us, there was no lack of visibility on what you can achieve.” says O’Toole

In fact, this visibility proved so successful that CLS now has 59% female staff. “We’ve actually had an inverse of the gender balance issue, in that we’ve had to go and tap men on the shoulder and encourage them to go for lead-level roles and stay with us.

“My ideal balance is 50/50, I think it’s really important to have that diversity in gender as some people work better with female leadership and others work better with male leadership.” says O’Toole.

“I think if you start a trend at the start of a company, that trend intensifies as the company gets bigger. As CEO, I need to make sure that gender diversity is there by bringing the men along with us, to ensure we have that good mix in the company. If there’s skill, performance and ambition, then it’s about nurturing that and kicking the door open.”


Seeing is believing

While CLS is enjoying an abundance of female talent, many other companies can’t say the same. “There’s a groundswell of women emerging in leadership roles, especially in pharma and MedTech,” says Evelyn. “Many women naturally go for caring roles but if you are working in something like medTech, you are having a big impact on people in the same way as those in frontline caring, as you are creating products that will have an impact on hundreds and thousands of people.

“That said, Ireland is still behind when it comes to women in leadership and senior management roles and we have to find out why – if it’s lifestyle, flexibility, confidence, opportunity or even money – from my own observation, women are less inclined than men to look for pay rises so it’s important to have a system in which they won’t be left behind in terms of money.”

That confidence can be gained by seeing women achieve their ambitions, and more – and there’s no better role model than Evelyn herself. In fact, women all over Ireland were able to gain from Evelyn’s positive message in 2017 when she won the Industry EY Entrepreneur of the Year, the first woman to win the Industry award since they began in 1997. 

“I was catapulted as a rarity, but it did have the effect of creating a lot of interest in women in business,” says Evelyn. “I believe very firmly in the power of seeing women succeed at a high level, it shows that this path is open to you.”

Start improving gender balance in your company with The Level Project Toolkit.

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