According to the report of an international conference on women in education management, the percentage of female principals needs to double to reflect the percentage of female teachers.
But the picture is not all gloomy. In some countries the proportion of female secondary headteachers has increased slightly, and Austria has seen a 20 per cent rise.
Miek Laemers and Annelies Ruijs, from the Dutch Institute for Applied Social Sciences, said in Lithuania, Austria and Greece, increasing numbers of women have broken through the glass ceiling and are succeeding in traditionally male leadership positions.
Negative examples include Turkey, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Luxembourg and Australia, where the percentage of female heads is well under half that of women teachers. The figures should be treated with caution, Mr Laemers and Ms Ruijs warned delegates at the Amsterdam conference late last year. In Lithuania, for instance, the proportion of women heads is high, but teaching is a sex-stereotyped profession with low status and pay. Because teachers often need evening jobs to support themselves, few men apply.
Other bad news includes the fact that the number of female professors is low almost everywhere, varying from around 3 per cent in Austria to 20 per cent in Turkey. Of the western European countries, France stands out with women holding 11.4 per cent of professorships, but in Greece the percentage dropped from 8 per cent in 1990 to 6.3 per cent in 1995.
Eeva Penttila, a former secondary head who is now international project manager at Helsinki's education department, said the status of Finnish women was generally good. Thirty-five per cent of secondary school principals are female, compared with 20 per cent a decade ago.
"English women are very envious of the fact Finnish women are so equal, but tragic, historical factors are the root cause," she said. "Because so many men were killed in World War II, women were encouraged to stay in their jobs afterwards to help Finland repay its debts to the Soviet Union. This set the ball rolling and good quality childcare sprang up, making it easy for mothers to work outside the home."
The downside is that most Finnish women have a hard life, working full-time and running the home.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see a backlash, with new generations saying they don't want to over-work like their mothers: they want to have three or four children and stay home to look after them," she said. "There must be a balance."
Listening to women talking about their problems at the conference was like listening to her mother, she said, because British and Dutch women, for example, are so far behind their Finnish counterparts.
Kay Driver, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, which has organised conferences on women in education management, said the union offered courses aimed at boosting the number of female leaders.
Figures showed that last summer, 25 per cent of secondary heads were women, she said, although the number has dropped slightly since then.
"It is in everybody's interest to have effective people leading our schools regardless of their sex," she said.
In 1992, 22 per cent of secondary heads in England and Wales were women, compared with 6.1 per cent in Holland in 1994, 13 per cent in Denmark, 28.8 per cent in Italy, and 70.5 per cent in Lithuania, all in 1995.