Iceland, Nordics top world gender equality list

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Iceland and three other Nordic countries lead the world in gender equality, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The United States, which prides itself on civil rights progress during the past half century, fell four spots from last year to stand at 31st place behind Lithuania and ahead of Namibia, according to the World Economic Forum, a nonprofit group based in Switzerland.

The report ranked countries according to how much they reduced gender disparities based on economic participation, education, health and political empowerment while attempting to strip out the effects of a nation’s overall wealth.

Iceland, which has been rocked by financial crisis, rose from fourth place overall a year ago to top the list and was followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden. New Zealand came in fifth.

Commenting on the low U.S. position, Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, said at the launch of the report in New York: “In many ways we’ve been a model ... but we also have a ways to travel.”

“Obviously I think every country wants to do better. It’s worth pointing out that no country has equality between men and women so we have a long road to go no matter where we live.”

Pulling down the United States was its poor performance in political empowerment, where it ranked a lowly 61.

The Nordic countries excelled in this area, with Iceland again taking top honors.

Yemen was ranked lowest at 134, behind Chad and Pakistan.

“Out of the 115 countries covered in the report since 2006, more than two-thirds have posted gains in overall index scores, indicating that the world in general has made progress toward equality,” co-author Ricardo Hausmann said in a statement.

The Nordic countries traditionally have been known for generous social benefits, and the high-ranking nations have made it easier to balance work and family life, the report said.

“When we look at the economic participation variables, it’s clear that this country (Iceland) has managed to remove the barriers to women participating in the workplace,” said Saadia Zahidi, the report’s co-author.

“Some of that is of course explained by the type of maternity leave benefits that these countries offer,” she said.

Zahidi said it was too early to tell what effects the global financial crisis in general, and Iceland’s economic turmoil in particular, would have on the gender gap standings.

The report is based on data that is between one and three years old, Zahidi said. Sources included the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Program.

Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Storey