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Downtown Reykjavik is seen in this file photo. Iceland ranks first in a new study of gender equality.SETH KUGEL/The New York Times

Want to see what a gender-equal society looks like? Head to Iceland.

For the fifth straight year, Iceland ranks as the most advanced country in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum.

Its annual global measure, which tracks economic and political participation along with health outcomes and educational attainment, shows the gap between men and women narrowed in most countries in the past year, particularly in terms of political participation.

More equal countries tend to be more competitive, productive ones, it says.

"Countries and companies can be competitive only if they develop, attract and retain the best talent – both male and female," the eighth annual report said. "Because women account for one half of a country's potential talent base, a nation's competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women."

Finland, Norway, and Sweden are next – all of which have closed more than 80 per cent of the gender gap. But it's not all a Nordic bunch – the Philippines comes in fifth place, moving up the rankings with improvements in economic participation.

Canada sits in a distant 20th, up one notch from last year – behind South Africa, Cuba, Latvia and Nicaragua, but ahead of the United States and Australia.

In total, 86 of the 133 countries measured last year and this year showed improvements in their gender gap.

Canada showed improvements in female labour force participation, earned income and a measure of senior officials. But those advances were offset by a drop in wage equality and in professional and technical indicators. Canada has "fully closed" the education gender gap, the report said. It fares less well in measures of political representation.

No country has achieved full equality, but Iceland comes the closest. It has the narrowest gender gap in the world, with recent improvements in both economic participation and political empowerment. The northern nation has long championed equality, with women getting the right to vote in 1915. Iceland also ranks high in the percentage of women in ministerial positions.

The Philippines, which moved up three notches in this year's report, is the highest-ranking country in Asia, largely because of higher equality in health, education and economic participation.

The three countries that are climbing the fastest in the gender gap rankings are all in Latin America – Nicaragua (which, at No. 10 overall is the highest-ranked country in the region), Bolivia and Ecuador.

Yemen sits in last position, with no women in parliament nor any female top managers. Even there, the gender gap has narrowed in the past seven years, the WEF said, with some improvements in economic opportunities.