Giving gender-specific encouragement to women to apply for headships may be less important than the influence of an inspirational headteacher, a study has found.
Four out of five heads taking part in the snapshot survey said another headteacher, rather than their husbands, families or friends, had been their main inspiration.
But when asked if women should be given particular encouragement, 40 per cent of the heads, drawn from Girls' School Association (GSA) schools, said no.
The survey, conducted by the Women Into School Headship (Wish) consultancy, gathered the experiences of dozens of headteachers, looking at what motivated them and what obstacles they had to overcome.
Notable problems included a general lack of confidence and a sense of having left career ambitions "too late" after having a family.
Some complained that family commitments made it difficult to move for a new job.
Others feared that their subject areas - for example, PE or art - would mean they would be perceived as "lightweight" by interviewers.
"Some were even afraid of getting the post," said Meg Maunder, co-founder of Wish, who presented the findings at the GSA conference in Harrogate this week.
The questionnaire also found that female teachers had felt most encouraged when they were given whole-school responsibilities.
"Having autonomy, and being trusted and believed in to do something gave them the confidence that they could do it," said Ms Maunder, a former assistant director of programmes at the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services.
"When we asked the heads if women should be given particular encouragement, many said no. "They said they wanted self-starters. But I think this response comes from the fact that headteachers want to be seen as equal and fair and encourage everybody equally."
Ms Maunder added that the questionnaire highlighted the more varied nature of women's career paths, compared with men, with many more taking on headships later in life.
"Some feel their age is against them, but we say it isn't too late, taking time out for other experiences enriches your application," she said.
The most recent figures show that women are still under-represented in schools at the highest level. In primaries, the rate of new appointments to headship among women is 75 per cent, but women make up 88 per cent of the workforce as a whole.
Fifty-eight per cent of secondary teachers are women, but only 40 per cent of heads.
Last year, the NUT accused the Government of developing a school leadership culture that discriminated against women.
Female teachers complained that they were told they were "not hard enough" to be heads because they were too collaborative and supportive.