The proportion of women gaining secondary headships has increased, but outside London they are still a tiny minority and such hurtful questions are by no means uncommon. Researching her new book Becoming a Secondary Headteacher, Julia Evetts of Nottingham University set out to analyse, among other things, the influence of gender on the career patterns of the teachers who eventually gained headships. What she found is not enormously encouraging for those committed to equal opportunities.
The book was based on a series of interviews with an equal number of male and female heads in two Midlands counties. The fact that to balance the numbers she had to interview almost all the women heads in these counties, but only a small proportion of the men, indicates how far behind women still lag in many areas.
On the whole, her subjects were teachers who had ridden the wave of change from a selective system to a comprehensive one. Ironically, she found that it was very often the women candidates for headships who had gained the widest experience of the system - but for reasons which appointing panels would often regard as "wrong".
These women had moved around not in pursuit of some ideal career strategy, but to fit in with family commitments, often gaining pastoral as well as academic experience, primary as well as secondary, comprehensive as well as grammar on the way.
Even so, because of career breaks the women heads in the sample tended to gain their first headship in their forties rather than in their thirties as the men did. And some suggested that the willingness of schools to "risk" a woman head may actually be diminishing under the new system which gives lay governors have a greater influence in making appointments, and LEA officials a lesser one.
One woman had become so disillusioned with her county's promotion procedures while seeking her headship that she had considered complaining to the Equal Opportunities Commission. She was well qualified, gained supportive references and was encouraged by the local inspectorate, but after a hundred applications had not gained a single interview.
"I don't go through life thinking 'discrimination' but my experience was telling me that there had to be something wrong here," she said. She wrote a paper to the chief education officer suggesting a more systematic method for appointing heads - and was interviewed and appointed within three months.
Even highly successful women teachers still follow the dual-career patterns which have been identified in other research and which tend to show that married women subordinate their ambitions to their husbands'. Very few couples, Julia Evetts suggests, achieve a genuine dual-career pattern in which both partners are able to take promotion at much the same sort of rate.
Most successful women have taken some time out to raise children, have worked part-time, and have moved around the country to suit their husband's career rather than their own. This to some extent explains why relatively few make it to headships, and those who do arrive there rather later in life than their male colleagues.
What is more surprising is the evidence that unreconstructed male attitudes to successful women are still alive and well in the teaching profession, at least in parts of the country. Other research suggests that there may be something of a North-South divide - or possibly an urban-rural divide - in this respect. One of Julia Evetts' interviewees tells a horror story about arriving late at a meeting of heads, mainly male. As she was searching for a seat, a colleague offered a place on his lap.
That particular head says that she did not take offence because she thought it was funny and quite a compliment. "It doesn't occur to me that it's a problem. But I don't know why it doesn't and I would dearly love to know why it doesn't because I'd like to instil that in the girls in my school."
Other heads find sexist attitudes much more problematic. They report they are are assumed to be the headmaster's wife, the school secretary or a head of department rather than the head of the school. They are liable to be told by the caretaker that they are "gorgeous".
All pinpricks perhaps, but more serious when they impinge seriously on career prospects or on the woman head's ability to do her job. Discussion of a deputy as a prospective head which centres on her "flamboyant" clothes, make-up and jewellery is much more potentially damaging, as is a woman teacher being accused of being "too soft" with difficult male pupils because she does not usually shout.
An experienced woman head in London, where other research has shown that high turnover has evened up the numbers of male and female headteachers, says women colleagues must not give up when they meet with sexism.
"I came to a school where they had never been used to having a woman in a senior management position. There were eight men running the school and I am quite sure that they thought they could run me too. When they found they couldn't there was trouble and I had to take drastic measures. In the end they all left."
At the other end of the spectrum is the head of a small East Anglian secondary school who says that she has never met with discrimination. She has taken two maternity leaves during her career, was supported by strong equal opportunities policies in the school where she became a deputy, and has found no difficulties in running her own school.
Julia Evetts also raises the questions of "male and female" management styles - the former being more autocratic, the latter more dependent upon negotiation and conflict avoidance. Might the "female" negotiating style, she asks, run into difficulties in the new market-oriented education service, with its emphasis on competition, performance indicators and financial management? Women heads are very conscious that these two styles do exist, although the divide, they think, is by no means only along gender lines. But a London woman head argues that a more co-operative style becomes even more important as running a school becomes more complicated.
"A business orientation does not disadvantage women," she claims. "Women do very well in business these days. And men are going to run into real trouble if they pursue an autocratic line and refuse to delegate. You cannot run schools like that any more."
It may be that secondary schools have much to learn from the primary sector where women, although still under-represented in proportion to their numbers, now take almost half the headships.
"Men in primary schools are much more used to working with and often for women," says the head of a medium-sized primary school in the South-east. "Of course there are still a few old-fashioned autocratic men around, but they are a dying breed."
In one respect though, a distinguished secondary woman head says, women are proving their own worst enemies. "They are not as good as the men in asking for a rise when it is merited. In that respect they are certainly falling behind. "
* Becoming a Secondary Headteacher by Julia Evetts is published by Cassell Teacher Development Series. Pounds 35 0 304 326 720 (hbk), Pounds 12.99 0 304 326 704 (pbk).