In this article, we explore more than 100 Chinese school leaders’ views about gender, equality and the historical and social contexts of Chinese education that they have experienced. China’s success in international student assessment programmes is rising, and Chinese females are continuing a steady trend of outdoing their male counterparts at all levels of schooling. So importance grows for the world to better understand Chinese education and the influential roles leaders, especially women leaders, hold in that sector. Our research is underpinned by a theoretical framework that considers whether gender role-modelling by school leaders affects students’ beliefs about gender roles and norms because they observe adult staff in schools for years. We present data that reveal most of our participants believe they are leading schools in China where gender equality is being role modelled and has been achieved. We discuss and theorise about a form of ‘gender equality with Chinese characteristics’ which seems to value a rigid gender binary with different, gendered expectations for adults. Finally, we consider whether Chinese school leaders may be reinforcing rather than changing gender inequality, even with the best intentions that they do not.