The incorporation of colleges encouraged competitive attitudes which may have reinforced masculine tendencies in management to the disadvantage of women.
This is the broad conclusion of a new study on gender and management in FE in Scotland.
The report's authors, Alan Ducklin and Jenny Ozga, of Edinburgh University, admit that the promotion prospects for women represent a "bleak picture," and they say more research is needed to highlight "a considerable gap between principles of equality and practice".
They say there are clear reasons why FE in particular must become more inclusive, given its role in promoting wider access and, more pragmatically, because of the growth in "women's work".
Interviews with women in senior FE posts led Messrs Ducklin and Ozga to conclude that "traditional performances of masculinity may produce organisational processes and relations that sustain male power and masculine management.
"They may also, of course, trap men in a limited repertoire of behaviours from which they may derive advantage, but which may also create stress and discomfort for them as well as their colleagues."
One woman, a depute principal, suggested to the researchers that "men are competitive and women are more co-operative; therefore incorporation did lend itself to a male-led competitive ethos and the appointment of males to senior management teams encouraged this".
She believes there are in-built prejudices. Two male colleagues had obtained associate principal posts ahead of her, having been encouraged to apply on both occasions when she had not been informed - the result of an "oversight", she was told.
And this was in a college which had an equal opportunities policy, at least on paper. The depute went on to describe a "laddish, masculine culture" in senior management.
She added: "I felt that decisions were being made over pints and not in the proper way . . . and they were forgetting to tell others within the group."
More positively, a female principal said initial dislike of her style by male members of the management team had given way to acceptance of her approach, which was one of delegating and creating space for them to do their work.
But, the principal added: "I have watched men say the same thing in a more aggressive manner and it has been taken better than when I said it. It is almost like they cannot cope (with a woman saying it)."
But however much of a glass ceiling there may be for women in FE colleges, attitudes are nothing like as entrenched as they are in local authorities, according to this principal. "There are one or two members of the council, high officials, who I know just do not like women . . . and, when you go into a reception, just walk around you or walk past you.
"So I get to the stage where I think I am not going to bother, even if they are some of the key people in the council. I just find other ways of doing what I want to do."
A study carried out for the Scottish Office in 1997 found that the careers of women top managers in FE were unplanned and that female middle managers and non-managers did not look for promotion because of the demands of their jobs. Senior female managers also worked extremely long hours.
A female principal interviewed in the Edinburgh University research described the key features of effective management, which she deploys, as the capacity to work well with others in a team and to take "a quiet, gentle but firm approach" to decision-making, which includes a willingness to listen to a range of views and ideas.
The report states: "This approach has led, she argues, to a very different ethos within the college from that which existed when all of the previous senior management team were male."
Some union leaders have noted privately that colleges with female principals tend to be remarkably free of industrial strife, although they are also prepared to accept this may be coincidence. Examples include Anniesland, Cardonald, Falkirk - but there have been exceptions such as Inverness under its previous (female) principal.
Ros Micklem, the principal at Cardonald and former chair of the FE principals' forum, believes the picture is "variable". She had not encountered all the attitudes described by the researchers "but I have seen them".
"Even in this college, wonderful as it is, there is macho management in some quarters - and it's not always confined to men," Ms Micklem said.