Data from a study of 135 countries showed on Wednesday women are moving ahead to close the gender gap with men in health and education but continue to struggle to get top jobs and salaries.
"Gaps in senior positions, wages and leadership levels still persist," even in countries that promote equality in education and have a high level of economic integration among women, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said in its annual Global Gender Gap Report.
The new figures were released just hours after a European Union initiative to set a 40-percent quota for women on the boards of listed companies stalled because of a lack of support.
It found that the Nordic countries, headed by Iceland, Finland and Norway, had done the best job of closing the gap, while Chad, Pakistan and Yemen had the worst rankings.
While almost all countries had made progress in closing the gap in healthcare and education between women and men, only 60 percent of countries had managed to narrow the economic gender gap and only 20 percent had progressed on a political level, the study said.
Of the top four global economies, the United States, Japan and Germany all made progress in closing their economic gender gap in 2012.
However, they slipped in the overall ranking, which also looks at health, education and politics, with Germany falling two spots to 13th place, the United States sliding five spots to 22nd, and Japan dipping to 101st from 98th last year.
China, which took a step backwards when it came to closing the economic gender gap, also fell in the overall ranking to 69th place from 66th last year.
Greece, which ranked 82nd, registered one of the biggest falls since 2011, when it ranked 56th -- largely owing to a change in the percentage of women holding ministerial positions, from 31 percent in 2011 to only six percent in 2012.
Countries such as Nicaragua (9) and Luxembourg (17) climbed up the ranking thanks to an increase in the percentage of women in parliament.
Reducing the male-female employment gap has been an important driver of European economic growth in the last decade, the report said.
It added that introducing even more equality could boost US gross domestic product by nine percent and eurozone GDP by up to 13 percent.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Tuesday that a move to set a 40-percent quota for women on the boards of listed companies had been delayed amid an ongoing row over the lack of female candidates for a key European Central Bank (ECB) job.
Reding, who was scheduled to present the plan, said on Twitter: "Gender balance directive postponed," owing to insufficient support for the idea within the 27-member European Commission.
The delay came a day after the European Parliament's economic affairs committee rejected the nomination of Luxembourger Yves Mersch to the ECB executive board, because it would result in an all-male board until 2018.
The WEF report said that closing the global gender gap was fundamental to economic growth and stability. It pointed out that no country in the Middle East or north Africa featured in the top 100 of the index: these were regions often troubled by instability and frequently pointed to when gender inequality is discussed.
Elsewhere in Africa, however, five countries ranked in the top 30.
By region, the Philippines (8) remained the highest-ranking country from Asia in the index.
With women making up 50 percent of countries' "human capital", governments needed to find ways to benefit from their talent, insisted Saadia Zahidi, senior director at the World Economic Forum.
"If that capital is not invested in, educated or healthy, countries are going to lose out in terms of their long-term potential," she said.
Only six countries had showed an improvement of 10 percentage points since the report launched seven years ago, Zahidi added, and almost 75 countries have improved by less than five points.
"So the progress is very slow... even though we are seeing a trend in a positive direction," she said.