More than half of female heads have experienced sexism from male colleagues, according to new research carried out by Dr Marianne Coleman, senior lecturer in education management at the University of Leicester.
This experience was particularly common among women under 50, and those who are married and have children.
However, heads of girls' schools were less likely to report sexism from their peers than the heads of co-educational and boys' schools.
Once established as headteachers, they were strongly aware of the fact that men found difficulty in dealing with female leaders. A feeling of being patronised and a sense of isolation were also common.
Dr Coleman's research was based on 470 replies she received to a survey sent out to all female secondary headteachers.
Speaking at the Association of Maintained Girls'Schools annual conference this week, she said: "The experience of isolation and instances of sexism from peers, recounted by the headteachers, indicate that they are operating in a context which may be inimical to success unless women are prepared to adapt to the prevailing values.
"These might include opting for a single state, childlessness, or working harder and longer than any other competitors, male and female."
However, many of the headteachers also mentioned several advantages to being a woman head, including the ability to defuse the macho behaviour of male students, teachers and parents.
Others said they quite consciously acted up to the stereotype of femininity and played on the susceptibilities of males, including governors and local authority staff.
They also felt that people could approach them more freely than they might a man, and that they were able to empathise with families and be sympathetic in a way that most men would find difficult.