Although no country in the world has yet achieved gender equality, the Nordic countries consistently stand out in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report, which measures how well countries are doing at removing the obstacles that hold women back.

In this year’s report, Iceland holds the top spot for the fifth consecutive year with Finland, Norway and Sweden following close behind. With the exception of Denmark, all Nordic countries have closed over 80% of the gender gap, making them useful as both role models and benchmarks. So, what is the secret of their success?

It’s not just a question of wealth. Although these high-income Nordic economies tend to top a lot of global polls, the Global Gender Gap Index strips out overall wealth, instead measuring how equitably income, resources and opportunities are distributed between women and men.

All Nordic countries reached 99%-100% literacy for both sexes several decades ago, and girls fare just as well as boys in terms of access to primary and secondary education. At the tertiary level, in addition to very high levels of enrolment for both women and men, the education gender gap has been reversed and women now make up the majority of the high-skilled workforce. In Norway, Sweden and Iceland, there are over 1.5 women for every man enrolled in university, while in Finland and Denmark, women also make up the majority of those in tertiary education.

While many developed economies have succeeded in closing the gender gap in education, few have succeeded in maximizing the returns on this investment. The Nordic countries are leaders in this area – all five countries feature in the top 25 of the economic participation and opportunity pillar of the Global Gender Gap Index. This is because of a combination of factors: high female labour force participation; salary gaps between women and men among the lowest in the world, although not non-existent; and abundant opportunities for women to rise to positions of leadership.

While patterns vary across the Nordic countries, on the whole, these economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in more women in the workplace, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for both women and men and, in some cases, a boost to waning fertility rates.

Policies in these countries include mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave, generous, state-mandated parental leave benefits provided by a combination of social insurance funds and employers, tax incentives and post-maternity re-entry programmes. Together, these policies have lowered the opportunity costs of having children and led to relatively higher and rising birth rates, as compared to other ageing, developed economies.

There has also been success with policies aimed at promoting women’s leadership. In Norway, since 2008, publicly listed companies have been required to have 40% of each sex on their boards. Other countries are adopting similar measures. Historically, the Nordic countries gained a head start by giving women the right to vote before others (Sweden in 1919, Norway in 1913, Iceland and Denmark in 1915, Finland in 1906). In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, political parties introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s, resulting in high numbers of female political representatives over the years. In Denmark, in fact, this quota has since been abandoned as no further stimulus is required.

Today, Sweden has among the highest percentages of women in parliament in the world (44.7%) while the other Nordic countries are almost as successful. Indeed, all the Nordic countries are in the top 10 for the number of women in parliament. These countries have a similarly strong record on the percentage of women in ministerial level positions, with Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland the four best countries in that category out of the 136 countries covered by the report. Finally, Iceland, Finland and Norway are among the top 10 countries in terms of the number of years with a female head of state or government, although the world as a whole does poorly on this indicator.

The Nordic experience is not just an important one for individuals, families and organizations today. It points to fewer problems with ageing in the future, as well as higher labour activity and a more robust economy. Both emerging markets and other developed economies have much to learn from the “Nordic Nirvana”.

Author: Saadia Zahidi is Senior Director and Head of Gender Parity and Human Capital at the World Economic Forum.

Image: A woman poses on ice that fell off Breidamerkurjokull’s Vatnajokull glacier, about 380 km (236 miles) from Iceland`s capital Reykjavik, May 31, 2008. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins