Europe's Nordic countries remain global leaders in the campaign to close the gender equality gap, according to a study released Tuesday that said women could play a key role in leading the world out of economic crisis.
Iceland, Norway and Finland topped the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual gender gap index, while Pakistan, Chad and Yemen were bottom of the 134-nation rankings.
Australia has dropped three places since last year to come in at 23rd behind Mozambique.
The report - which assesses how equitably income, resources and opportunities are distributed between the sexes - gave particular praise to the Philippines in Asia and Lesotho in Africa, which were both in the world top 10.
The United States surged from 31st last year to 19th, while France dropped more than 25 places to 46th, mainly because of its "poor performance" in women's political empowerment.
"The evidence reveals that gender disparities in French politics remain persistent, despite legislation that mandates an equal number of men and women candidates on political party lists," it said.
Many of the world's other top economies also lag. Japan is 94th and China 61st. Britain was unchanged in 15th place, but Germany fell for the fifth straight year to 13th.
The report said Iceland had made new gains "because of an increase in the number of women ministers, a near gender-balanced parliament and the continued tenure of a female prime minister.
The only blemish was "a significant difference between men's and women's salaries."
Nordic countries have some of the highest labor force participation rates in the world and lowest salary gaps while "women have abundant opportunities to rise to positions of leadership," said the report.
Nordic countries have "higher and rising birth rates occurring simultaneously with high female workforce participation," compared to other rich countries such as Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain where birth rates and participation are lower.
"The Nordic experience points to fewer problems with aging in the future, as well as higher labor activity and a more robust economy."
The WEF said reducing the male-female employment gap has been "an important driver of European economic growth in the last decade" and more efforts could help all developed countries as well as help tackle aging populations and mounting pension burdens.
It said new research on the growing "power of the purse" showed how women will be among the drivers of post-crisis growth.
"The combined impact of growing gender equality, the emerging middle class and women's spending priorities will lead to rising household savings rates and shifting spending patterns that are likely to benefit sectors such as food, healthcare, education, childcare... and financial services, particularly in emerging markets."
Lesotho rose two places to eighth in the index. It had a top ranking for education and health and was the highest-ranked among the 134 countries on the economic participation subindex.
New Zealand at fifth and the Philippines, at ninth, led the Asia-Pacific nations.
"The Philippines is the only country in Asia this year to have closed the gender gap on both education and health, and is among only eight countries in the world to have done so."
The United States entered the index top 20 for the first time mainly because of education improvements, with women outstripping men in higher education.
China fell one place to 61st, which the WEF blamed on lower scores on labor force participation, perceived wage equality and the lower number of reported births of girls.
"China becomes the second-last ranking country on the health and survival subindex (133), the result of its disproportionate sex ratio at birth, which contributes to China's 'missing women' phenomenon," said the WEF.