A lot has happened in the 40 years since the heights of bra-burning feminism. Legislation combined with evolving attitudes has increased the opportunities for women in the workplace hugely, with more than ever reaching the top of their chosen professions.
In the educational world particularly, women have flourished. Females dominate in classrooms, and school leadership teams up and down the country include thousands of women, successfully balancing their careers with the demands of families and home lives. This trend is reflected in the groups representing teachers' interests, too. For the first time, the general secretaries of all three main classroom teaching unions are women.
However, a quick glance around the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) tells a different story: a sea of grey suits broken only intermittently by the exuberance of a bright pink Chanel tailleur or the exotic shimmer of a silk scarf. Tellingly, the general secretaries of both the heads' unions, ASCL and the NAHT, are men. Indeed, in the secondary sector, only around 44 per cent of the headteachers appointed in 2009 were female - despite women making up 58 per cent of the teaching workforce. This represents a 10 per cent improvement since 2003, but experts say the 45 per cent mark still represents a female promotion "glass ceiling".
An analysis of local authorities in England reveals that only 35.5 per cent of serving secondary heads are women. The gap is highlighted by the fact that women can still hit the headlines when they become heads of high-profile schools. New Zealander Felicity Lusk received wide media coverage when she was appointed head of Abingdon School, an elite independent boys' school, just last year.
In primary education, the situation initially appears better: 71 per cent of new primary headships go to women. But this is 4 per cent down on 2008, and becomes far less impressive when you consider that women make up well over 80 per cent of the workforce.
Academics have shown that while men are thin on the ground in primary schools, they benefit from the "glass elevator" effect, zooming to the top because of their scarcity. Male primary teachers also tend to be appointed to headship at a younger age, and end their careers in charge of larger schools.
Margaret Wilson, now 10 years into her second headship at the 1,900-pupil King John School in Benfleet, Essex, was forced to go through 24 interviews before securing her first top job and found breaking into the role initially "very difficult".
"In half of my interviews, governors came up to me in the informal part and found a way of asking whether I was planning a family, which I was always very vague about," she says. "And when I finally got a job (at a failing school in Barking and Dagenham), half of the governors left and I was told it was because I was a woman. Those who resigned thought a woman couldn't deal with some of the very difficult multi-cultural boys in the borough. But once I had been there long enough, I was judged on results. When I arrived the school was half empty and it became over- subscribed."
The National College says it does not run any women-focused schemes to address the imbalance and that all its courses encourage equal opportunities. Indeed, the National Professional Qualification for Headship has been particularly popular with women. But before changes to the course in 2008, which meant that all participants had to have headship firmly in their sights, women were more likely than men to use it as a means of general professional development, rather than specifically as a ticket to headship. And the National College may be right in its belief that the stumbling blocks to success do not always stem from a lack of female-specific training.
Indeed, a recent academic survey for teaching union NASUWT found the burden on women of domestic life is an ongoing and pressing issue. The study, No Job for a Woman? The Impact of Gender in School Leadership, asked teachers whether their career took precedence over that of their partner. Among men, 42 per cent said that it did; among women, the figure was just 28 per cent.
It also found that a fifth of senior and middle leaders who took a career break of more than two years returned to a post at a lower grade. And one in four women - compared to one in 10 men - felt that childcare arrangements determined their career choice. Female heads are more likely than male heads to be childless.
Professor John Howson, an expert in teacher recruitment and a co-author of the report, says: "If you leave on a career break as a head of department and come back after having children without responsibility, you are likely to miss the boat and fail to become an assistant head by the time you are 40. This is what you need to stand a remote chance of becoming a head in a secondary school."
Statistics from analyst Education Data Surveys show that 46 out of 78 assistant heads appointed in 200910 were under 40 - and one-third were under 35. The report also found evidence of a pervasive stereotype - common among both male and female teachers - that means men are viewed as better leaders.
Dr Marianne Coleman, from the Institute of Education, has carried out in- depth research into gender and school leadership. She said that old- fashioned ideas among school governors could be partly to blame.
"People working in education are generally into equal opportunities, but governing bodies come from a different perspective and can be quite gendered in their expectations," she says. "Lots of experiments have been done that give people lists of stereotypical male and female traits and asked (them) which they would associate with a leader. Most choose male traits, such as `strong' and `decisive' - it's hard-wired. Only young women are inclined to pick female characteristics such as `caring'."
She adds that there is a perception that if leadership teams are made up of equal numbers of men and women, then women will dominate - perpetuating the belief that teams should be predominantly made up of men.
Meanwhile, consultants working in the field are convinced that most women need little more than a boost to their confidence to get them applying for - and securing - top jobs.
Meg Maunder, a co-founder of the Women into School Headship consultancy and former deputy, says that to step up to headship, women need a senior member of staff who believes in them, and has run "Wholehearted for Headship" sessions for the NAHT.
"Women were able to meet other women, articulate concerns about not being good enough in a `safe' environment, and realise their sense of inadequacy was nonsense because everyone feels the same," she says. "The confidence thing is huge. Women are more internally perceptive about their inadequacies and more hesitant about going for it, and this can come over as a lack of competence. Men don't think, `I can't' - they think they can do it."
She says women can feel a sense of failure for going on a programme specifically designed for them, but once they get into it, they see it is "what they need". She adds that there is a minority of women - many of whom went to high-flying girls' schools - who have the confidence to go for top jobs, and that these might find the idea of specialist support for women patronising and unnecessary.
"But this is not the case for the majority," she says. "Mentoring and support is vital."
Whatever the reason women are still lagging behind, it is encouraging they are making strong headway. But only time will tell if one day the ASCL conference will see more pink suits than grey.
Comment: `Improvement comes through a change in culture'
In secondary schools in England, the majority of teachers are female, but women are much less likely to become headteachers. After researching the impact of gender on headship over the last 15 years it seems to me that there are two main reasons for this. One is a conscious or unconscious expectation that leaders are, or should be, men; the other is to do with the sort of life choices that women contemplating headship have to make.
In a national survey, approximately 96 per cent of male secondary heads were married and only 2 per cent divorced. The vast majority of them had wives or partners who had put their career on the "back burner" and took major responsibility for running the home and looking after children.
The female heads had much less support than the males, with 78 per cent married or partnered, 10 per cent single and 10 per cent divorced. Those married or partnered were very unlikely to have partners who took responsibility for home and children.
Women heads were also less likely to have children: only 63 per cent had children compared to 90 per cent of male heads. Some women may be making a choice between headship and motherhood.
In my current research with female leaders in all walks of life, the same two challenging factors emerge: combating the male stereotype of leadership and the difficulties of combining a demanding role at work with a satisfactory workfamily balance. Improvement comes through a change in culture, but change is very slow.
- Dr Coleman is an emeritus reader in educational leadership at the Institute of Education. Her book, Women at the Top: Challenge, Choice and Change, is to be published early next year by Palgrave Macmillan.
Regional Analysis - `Heroic' females target tricky jobs
The proportion of male to female heads varies widely from region to region - with women making huge inroads in London and other urban areas. The latest research by Kay Fuller, a lecturer in English education at Birmingham University, has found that women outnumber men in six London boroughs including gritty areas such as Newham, Lewisham and Camden. In seven other boroughs, the proportions are equal.
The list of high-profile and highly paid heads in the capital is long, from Jacqueline Valin at Southfields Community College in Wandsworth to Jo Shuter at Quintin Kynaston School in north London. While in Knowsley, a particularly deprived area of Merseyside, seven out of nine heads are female; women also outnumber men in Oldham and Stockport.
Figures from Education Data Surveys - a sister company of The TES - show that of primaries appointing a new head last year, only 13 per cent of London schools chose a man, compared to 46 per cent in the South West and 44 per cent in Wales. And the Future Leaders programme, which prepares teachers for tricky urban headships, was 70 per cent women in its first intake four years ago, suggesting a "heroism" among women determined to work with the most deprived.
But Professor John Howson suggests these figures may reflect the difficulty of recruiting to schools with more complex challenges, rather than illustrating a forward-looking feminist outlook in urban areas.
"Fewer apply for headship in difficult urban areas so governors are less likely to find someone for the post," he says. "We believe many female heads were reluctant deputies persuaded to act up. These women were coerced into the job at first, then realise they can do a good job and apply for it."
In other words, women are picking up the tricky jobs that men don't want. "There is also the issue of fewer graduate opportunities in places like Wales and the North East, so men are more likely to go for top jobs in education," he adds.
But Ms Fuller, who is examining the national picture in detail, says although she suspects an "inherent conservatism" in rural areas, more study is needed.
"You have pockets where heads are more likely to be women, but it doesn't always follow that urbanisation means more female heads" she says. In rural Denbighshire, North Wales, she adds, six out of eight heads are women, yet none of Peterborough's heads are.
"It will be interesting to see what these authorities are doing differently, or whether women in those areas are better supported by their husbands," she says. "It's complex and unlikely to be due to one thing."