Introduction South Africa presents a distinctive context in which to study the relationship of gender to leading schools. The new Constitution that followed the demise of apartheid in 1994 embedded a strong commitment to racial and gender equality. The national context therefore encompasses a historic legacy of inequality relating to ethnicity, gender, religion and language alongside new emphatic expectations of equity. National policy also gives prominence to achieving universal high-quality education, despite persistent differentials in the resources available to individual schools. Schools function in many different contexts including, for example, metropolises with informal settlements that are as large as cities elsewhere in the world, and deep rural settings where very small schools educate farm-workers' children. In this context, the article draws on a larger data set concerning women South African school principals, identifying the seven schools with 200 students or fewer, and explores the experience of their women principals. The premise of the article is that gender in the workplace is a socially constructed phenomenon, as our data reveal. The focus of the article is the relationship of relevant factors perceived by each woman to constructing gender as a positive or a negative characteristic, or both, that supports or undermines her capacity to lead within a small school.