The gap between men and women has narrowed slightly in the past year in most countries, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report.
Iceland, Finland and Norway top the list of 136 nations, based on political participation, economic equality and rights like education and health.
The Middle East and North Africa were the only regions not to improve in the past year, with Yemen at the bottom.
The Philippines and Nicaragua both feature in the top 10.
The WEF has produced the report annually for the past eight years.
The release of this year’s edition comes as the BBC rounds off a month-long focus on women and gender around the world with a major event at Broadcasting House in London.
One hundred women from all around the world are gathering for a day of debate and discussion as the 100 Women season comes to an end.
Iceland’s position at the top of the WEF rankings was the fifth year in a row the country has been named the world’s most equal.
Report founder and co-author Saadia Zahidi told the BBC that since the WEF began compiling the index in 2006, 80% of countries had made progress.
“What’s worrying though is that 20% of countries have made no progress or are falling behind,” she said.
She singled out the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as countries that had invested in education and health, but had not integrated women into the economy.
Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the English-language Yemen Times, in London for the 100 Women conference, told the BBC that she had stopped counting the years her country had languished at the bottom of the equality list.
“It comes down to everyday life. We had three women running for president in 2006. We have lots of women in senior positions,” she said.
“But our levels of maternal mortality are very high, and 35% of girls aged 6-14 years old are not in school.”
Saadia Zahidi of the WEF said that by contrast many sub-Saharan countries had not invested in women, but through necessity they played a major role in the economy.
Nordic countries continued to lead the way because they had a long history of investing in people, she said.
“They are small economies with small populations; they recognise that talent matters, and that talent has to be men and women.
Overall, the report, entitled Global Gender Gap Report 2013, found Iceland to be the most advanced country in the world in terms of gender equality for the fifth year running.
Iceland, Finland (second), Norway (third) and Sweden (fourth) had all closed over 80% of the gender gap, where 100% would represent full equality.
The highest-ranked Asian nation was the Philippines (fifth), praised for its success in health, education and economic participation.
Asia’s major economies performed poorly, with China in 69th place and Japan 105th.
Nicaragua in 10th place was the highest positioned country in North and South America, and was praised for a “strong performance” in terms of political empowerment.
Among major world economies Germany ranked 14th (down one), the UK held its position at 18, with Canada at 20 and the United States 23rd.
On matters of health and survival, the report finds that 96% of the gap has now closed.
In terms of education, the global gender gap is 93% closed, with 25 countries now judged to deliver equal treatment to boys and girls at school.
It is a different picture on the core issue of economic equality, where the gender gap has closed by 60%.
In developing and developed countries alike, women’s presence in economic leadership positions is limited.
And while women have made small gains in political representation – 2% this year – only 21% of that global gender gap has closed
Ms Zahidi said the idea of the report was not to remind poor countries that they had fewer opportunities than rich countries, but to give them a tool to improve the situation.
“Women make up one half of the human capital available to any economy and any company; if that talent isn’t integrated, that is going to be a loss for both women and men,” she said.
THE TOP 20 COUNTRIES