Women remain far behind men in economic and political power, but the Nordic countries come closest to closing the gender gap, according to a survey of 134 nations released Tuesday.

The four Nordic countries — Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — have topped the Global Gender Gap Index since it was first released in 2006 by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.

They did so again this year, but Iceland replaced Norway at the top of the list with a score of 82.8 percent, meaning it came closest to 100 percent gender equality.

Two African countries — South Africa and Lesotho — entered the list of the top 10 countries for the first time while four other remained, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland and the Philippines.

At the bottom of the list were Qatar, Egypt, Mali, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad and Yemen in last place with a score of 46.1 percent. Several countries near the bottom, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, Bahrain, Ethiopia and Morocco, made gains from the 2008 rankings.

While many nations have made some progress toward gender equality, no country has closed the gap when it comes to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival.

"Girls and women make up one half of the world's population," the forum's founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, said in a statement, "and without their engagement, empowerment and contribution, we cannot hope to achieve a rapid economic recovery nor effectively tackle global challenges such as climate change, food security and conflict."

Saadia Zahidi, head of the forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program, told a news conference launching the survey that of the 115 countries in the original index four years ago, 99 have made progress in closing their gaps — but 16 haven't "and have actually deteriorated."

In the latest survey, Paraguay climbed a record 34 spots to 66, leading an advance by a number of Latin American countries including Ecuador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Botswana made the second biggest improvement, jumping 24 places to number 39 thanks to a major increase in women in the work force, and Japan rose 23 places to 75 largely due to an increase of women in higher positions.

The survey shows that on health, "the world is doing fairly well," closing over 96 percent of the gap in resources between women and women, Zahidi said. On education, about 93 percent of the gap has been closed but on economic participation and opportunity only 60 percent has been closed and on political empowerment only 17 percent.

"So basically what we're saying is that across the world, in general, women are starting to be almost as healthy and almost as educated as men — obviously with major exceptions — but those resources are not being used efficiently in terms of economic participation and certainly not in terms of political decision-making," Zahidi said.

Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador for global women's issues, said the index "underscores that gender equality is critical to a country's economic prosperity and competitiveness."

"It remains a simple fact that no country could prosper if half its people are left behind," she said. "Yet, women are still largely under-represented also in parliament and legislatures of nearly every country, and I might add so too in the boardrooms of corporations."

In the latest survey, the United States dropped from 27th place to 31st place in the rankings as a result of minor drops in the participation of women in the economy and improvements in the scores of previously lower-ranked countries, according to the survey.

Verveer noted that the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act making it easier for workers to sue for pay discrimination, but she stressed: "We have a long road to go no matter where we live."

Survey co-author Laura Tyson, a business professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former Clinton administration economic adviser, said that leaders rebuilding "their battered economies" should work on the premise that closing the gender gap promotes productivity and competitiveness.

She said it's too early to assess the impact of the global economic crisis on women because 2009 data isn't available yet.

But Tyson said many questions have been raised — including whether the presence of more female decision-makers would have moderated the risk-taking by men which helped caused the crisis.