A considerable amount of research has been conducted into women’s experiences of leadership in the education sector with calls to further promote equality, increase diversity and foster inclusion but ways forward seem less easy to implement with the same experiences and frustrations continuing to emerge. This article applies insights from critical realism to educational leadership development to seek a fuller understanding as to why these concerns remain and how they might be addressed. The article begins by considering barriers to women attaining leadership positions and accessing leadership development including those posed by the ‘leadership turn’ and new managerialism. Some ideas behind critical realism are briefly introduced before exploring the possible implications for educational leadership development. It is argued that a fundamental challenge to, and changing of, the dominant concept of leadership must take place before progress can be made. Directions are proposed for critical realist work in the theory and practice of educational leadership development and the wider field. © 2019, Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. The attached document (embargoed until 23/09/2019) is an author produced version of a paper published in INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP IN EDUCATION uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self- archiving policy. The final published version (version of record) is available online at the link. Some minor differences between this version and the final published version may remain. We suggest you refer to the final published version should you wish to cite from it.