Fewer countries made strides toward improving equality between men and women this year, while Nordic countries held the top spots in a ranking of 135 nations, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.
Iceland claimed the No. 1 position for the third year in a row, followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden, according to the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index released today by the Geneva-based group. Of the countries surveyed, 55 percent narrowed the gender gap, compared with 59 percent the previous year, which measures the difference between men's and women's economic participation and opportunities, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. Eighty-five percent of countries have improved their gender-equality ratios since the survey began in 2006.
"Women make up one-half of the brain power of the human capital that's available to an economy," Saadia Zahidi, head of the World Economic Forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity program and co-author of the report, said in an interview. "If that one-half is not fully integrated into a particular country's development and into its development over time, it's fairly evident that there would be a detrimental effect."
While differences between men's and women's health and education are disappearing, women still lag behind in economic participation, which includes salaried and skilled jobs, and political representation, according to the report.
Resources and Opportunities
The review looks at how countries divide resources and opportunities for men and women, regardless of the level of resources available.
"You can be a rich country or you can be a poor country and you can still do very well in the rankings," Zahidi said.
The Philippines came in eighth, followed by Lesotho, a sub- Saharan Africa country, in ninth place. It was the only sub- Saharan country found to have no gap in education and health.
Among the top 20, Cuba improved most, moving to 20th this year from 24th in 2010. The U.S. rose to No. 17 -- climbing two positions -- in part because women now make up almost half of the labor force and the income gap narrowed. It was followed by Canada in 18th place.
China, Japan and India maintained their standings or did slightly worse this year. China stayed at No. 61, while Japan slipped four slots to 98th and India one place to 113th.
Among countries that declined this year was France, which dipped to 48th place after rising to 15th in 2008 compared with its 70th place standing in the first survey in 2006.
France is taking steps to narrow the gap. The government will punish companies with 50 or more employees that don't introduce measures to eliminate wage inequality under a retirement reform law scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. France also will penalize companies with over 500 employees whose boards aren't 40 percent female by 2017, according to the Solidarity Ministry's website.
Some of France's neighbors -- Germany, Spain and Switzerland -- already rank in the top 15, with Belgium improving to 13th from 33rd two years ago. The U.K. slipped to 16th place from 15th.
Arab nations showed mixed results, with some improving, others declining and some holding steady. Policy makers are waiting to see what effect, if any, the Arab Spring will have on the gender gap in those countries.
"I don't think anybody knows how this will evolve," Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador at-large for global women's issues, said in an interview before the report was released. "Tunisia will be interesting to watch. Women there have enjoyed greater rights there than in any of the other Arab countries."
Tunisia ranked 108th after 107th last year, while Egypt improved to 123rd from 125th in 2010, the report showed.
Fostering gender equality can have a cascading effect, Zahidi said, with smaller gaps linked to higher gross domestic product per capita and rankings on human development gauges.
"A world where women make up less than 20 percent of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential," Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, said in a statement.
At the group's annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, this year women accounted for about 20 percent of participants at the event that draws hundreds of top government officials, executives and economists. The proportion increased from 16 percent in 2010 following a new policy to attract more women executives.
Top performers from 2011 also led in 2010, when Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden claimed the top four spots. The bottom three spots this year were the same as 2010 and went to Pakistan at 133rd, followed by Chad and then Yemen at 135th.
Iraq was not ranked due to a lack of data, Zahidi said.
The study for the first time includes data analyzing national policies designed to boost workforce participation by women and measurements on achieving that goal. Less than half of the countries surveyed responded, showing that 88 percent of the nearly 60 countries supplying information have legislation prohibiting gender-based workplace discrimination, with fewer than 45 percent having a national benchmarking tool. The report notes that 20 percent of the countries surveyed require female representatives on corporate boards and 30 percent mandate political participation.
The report was the result of collaboration between Zahidi; Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University; and Laura D'Andrea Tyson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton.