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Global Gender Gap Is Closing In Many Areas, But Not Fast Enough, Study Says

Rwandan women attend a memorial service for genocide victims in April. After years of political turmoil, women in the country are narrowing the economic and political gap with men.
Ben Curtis
Rwandan women attend a memorial service for genocide victims in April. After years of political turmoil, women in the country are narrowing the economic and political gap with men.

Women around the world have narrowed the gender gap on key measures of political engagement, health, economics and education, but progress remains slow, according to a report from the World Economic Forum.

Although women are entering the workforce in large numbers, they continue to face wage inequality, and now earn what men made in 2006, said the forum's "Global Gender Gap Report 2015."

On education, women still lag men, but the gap has narrowed, especially at the university level, where women outnumber men in almost 100 countries.

In fact, health and education are two areas where women in most high-income countries have completely closed the gap with men, says Saadia Zahidi, head of employment and gender initiatives at the forum, in an interview with NPR:

"Where the picture looks very, very different around the world, depending on policies, depending on culture, is what's happening on women's economic empowerment. And then for the world as a whole, political empowerment is an area that everyone needs to be making progress on."

The forum annually releases a ranking of countries on gender parity. Once again this year, the five top finishers are all in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Ireland.

The rankings measure the gap between men and women in categories such as health and education, not the overall condition of their lives. Women may live better in wealthy countries, without achieving true gender equality, Zahidi says.

For that reason, wealthy countries such as Japan (#101) and Saudi Arabia (#134) land pretty far down the list, while some poorer countries fare better, she says.

The sixth-place finisher is Rwanda, a country that has endured years of civil war and economic turmoil. But it has made significant progress on economic and political measures, as Foreign Affairs noted last year:

"One major improvement has come in the leadership of Rwandan women, who have made history with their newly vital role in politics and civil society. No longer confined to positions of influence in the home, they have become a force from the smallest village council to the highest echelons of national government."

Rounding out the Top Ten are the Philippines, Switzerland, Slovenia and New Zealand.

The United States finished 28th out of 145 countries, falling eight places since last year.

The U.S. has closed the gap between men and women in education and health. But it doesn't fare as well in labor force participation, wage equality for similar work and political empowerment, i.e., the number of women in legislative and cabinet roles, Zahidi says:

"That's an area where the U.S. does considerably less well than other countries," Zahidi says. It ranks 81st in parliamentary or legislative representation and 42nd in cabinet-level positions.

The country at the bottom of the list is Yemen, which ranks at or near the bottom in education, literacy, economic participation, wage inequality and political empowerment, Zahidi says.

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Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.