Cindy Fleet will always remember the moment her late grandmother, Mary Grace, turned to her and said, "Never rely on a man for your living."
It was a defining moment for the native of Grand Falls-Windsor, and Fleet took the advice to heart from a woman who had her own business in the 1930s.
"That certainly stuck with me, that it was important to be independent," Fleet said.
Fleet decided on a career as a teacher, never thinking it would take her to the upper echelons of the province's education system.
"I set out to be a really good classroom teacher. I guess people saw me as a fit or thought I could take on the leadership," said the CEO and director of education for the Nova Central School District, based in Gander.
Fleet oversees a geographically expansive district with 66 schools, nearly 13,000 students, approximately 2,000 full- and part-time employees, and an operating budget of nearly $114 million.
It's one of four regional school districts in Newfoundland and Labrador (there is also a French school board that oversees five schools), but Fleet is the only female director of education in a province where 70 per cent of teachers and administrators are female. At the assistant director level, 13 of the 14 positions are held by men.
The gender imbalance has been the subject of studies and research papers, and Fleet has often been probed by experts seeking to explain the disparity.
She said the answer is not a complicated one. It boils down to family commitments, and the time, effort and sacrifices required to be a senior administrator.
She said it's not uncommon for her to work weekends, holidays and weeknights. And when most teachers are enjoying a vacation from late June to early September, the pace often accelerates at the district office. She said many males wouldn't be willing to take on such a task, let alone women with families.
"We have quite a number of females here in our district office, but not females with young children. They either have no children or their children are grown up," said Fleet.
Fleet spent most of her career in Labrador, working as a teacher and administrator at schools in Wabush, Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and later as an assistant director and director of education. In 2006, she was offered a five-year contract with the Nova Central School District.
Fleet didn't experience any barriers during her rise through the ranks, and said many of her mentors were men, who often encouraged her to apply for more senior positions. She would make it clear during interviews that she would only accept a job on the condition that her gender was not a factor.
"I would be disappointed if I were told I were being appointed because I am a female," she said.
But as a mother of three, she feels she had to overcome more challenges than her male counterparts. While studying during the summer at university in St. John's, for example, her children accompanied her from Labrador. She had to arrange for childcare and had to work late at night, after her children were in bed.
"There were a lot of guys in my class doing courses, but their families were not in St. John's. They were home with their moms during the summer," Fleet recalled.
She said males outnumber females "by far" when responding to administrative job competitions in her district, despite the fact that more and more females are suitably qualified.
She believes many teachers pursue a masters degree in order to advance on the pay scale, and not necessarily to become an administrator. To earn a Level VII teaching certificate, for example, a teacher must have a masters.
Another factor, Fleet added, is that those working at the senior levels work year-round, while those represented by the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association work during the school year, which runs from September to June. When comparing the daily rate of pay, Fleet said it's likely that a school administrator would earn more than many senior managers.
What's more, Fleet's district covers a large geographical area, and board staff are often required to do a substantial amount of travel, often staying overnight. As a result, she said, the district has experienced difficulty recruiting and retaining female program specialists.
"It's because of family. They're very reluctant to be on the road," Fleet noted.
"From what I have seen in staffing here in Nova Central, there are females who are interested in the positions, but for family reasons either don't apply or turn down positions."
Considering her own experience, Fleet is not surprised that the number of females in education is not reflected at the administrative level. She's also not alarmed by the imbalance, which she said is slowly disappearing as more females become principals and vice-principals.
"The question is do females want to aspire to educational leadership?" she asked.
Look for Part II in Saturday's edition of The Weekend
Here is a breakdown of the full-time equivalent teachers and administrators by position and gender for the current school year:
Position Male Female Total
of education 4 1 5
education officer 4 1 5
Assistant director 13 1 14
officer 13 12 25
Program specialist 16 24 40
Principal 165 115 280
Vice-principal 97 115 212
Classroom teacher 999 2,544 3,544
Department head 124 111 235