The United Nations estimates that women make up at least 40 percent of the world's workforce and, on average, work more hours than men. But they only earn one-fourth of global income and have less access than men to health services, education, job opportunities and political representation.

Most experts define the gender gap as differences between men and women in five key areas -- economic opportunity and participation, political representation, health and education.

Many countries have made significant strides toward narrowing the gap in these areas, says Saadia Zahidi of the independent, Geneva-based World Economic Forum, which tracks global progress on gender parity. "The number one ranking country in the world has only closed about 81 percent of the gender gap. Sweden is the number one ranking country in the world, followed closely by three other Nordic countries,"says Zahidi. "The lowest ranking country, however, has closed only about 45 percent of the gap -- and that's Yemen. The last spaces in the report are occupied by Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Pakistan and Chad. And each of them has closed about 50 percent of its gender gap." 

Some analysts say stereotypes, tribal and cultural practices and poverty contribute to the gender gap. According to the United Nations, about 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor people -- those living on less than a dollar-a-day -- are women. Most of them have no access to health care or cannot afford it. Only 31 percent of women in the developing world receive maternal medical care, compared to more than 80 percent in developed countries. In some regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, one woman dies every minute due to pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Slow Progress

Progress toward eliminating these kinds of problems has been too slow, says Sunita Kishor of MEASURE Demographic and Health Surveys, a Maryland-based group that provides technical assistance to developing countries. "Maternal mortality remains very high. Five-hundred women die from pregnancy-related causes for every one-thousand lives in at least 22 countries that we ourselves have surveyed. So in terms of survival, in terms of care, women are still struggling to get health equity."

The U.N. estimates that up to 74 percent of maternal deaths could be avoided through proper health care. And Sunita Kishor says lack of basic medical and child care services can be economically costly. "The developing world continues to represent a very large proportion of the total population on this. And the health care costs form a huge burden. It's also an issue of the labor hours lost. If you bring in women who are almost dying to get the [health] care as distinct from preventive care, you're going to run into much higher costs. But there is also the huge cost of losing the labor or the economic contribution of a large part of society," adds Kishor.

Kirrin Gill of the non-profit International Center for Research on Women in Washington sees a clear link between women's health and the level of a nation's economic development. For example, she says one in six women will die of pregnancy-related causes in Sierra Leone, while only one woman in about 30-thousand will die of similar causes in Sweden.  "Maternal health is ultimately related to whether societies invest in and realize the potential of women. And where women lack education, economic opportunities and power over the decisions that govern their lives, the health of mothers is poor,"says Gill. "So we have to address the potential of women not only as mothers, but as critical contributors to society as individuals and as citizens."

According to U.N. studies, women in many parts of the world are not the decision makers when their own health is concerned. For example, nearly 48 percent of husbands in Bangladesh and 75 percent of husbands in Sub-Saharan Africa make health care decisions for their wives. And where women have made their voices heard, they remain a minority. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organization of national parliaments, women represent only 17 percent of the world's lawmakers and six percent of its prime ministers.

But this level of representation requires education. The United Nations says women account for two-thirds of the world's 800-million plus illiterate people and girls account for two-thirds of the world's 300-million children who have no access to education.

Women Still Earn Less

Brigham Young University's Valerie Hudson says large literacy gaps affect a country's economic development. "Pioneering studies by World Bank economists and other research economists show dramatically that the literacy gap between men and women accounted for a large part of the difference in the wealth of developing nations. So, [when] comparing developing nations where there was a small literacy gap to developing nations where there was a large literacy gap, the large literacy gap dragged down the economies of these nations," says Hudson.

In most parts of the world, women earn less than men. And in some regions, they work longer hours. According to U.N. statistics, women in 22 industrialized countries earn only 80 percent of what men earn. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, women earn less than 70 percent of what men earn.

Political scientist Valerie Hudson says that is only part of a bigger picture. "It's pretty easy to show cross-nationally that the life course of women is still not the same in terms of aspirations, in terms of being able to decide one's own life course, being able to have one's contribution to society valued,"says Hudson. "And I think we can show that even in the most developed countries, we still see that there is no true parity in the lives of men and women."

Despite significant progress, the United Nations says lack of equal access by women and girls to resources, opportunities and political power remains pervasive. And many experts argue that the true mark of a nation's progress lies in realizing the full potential of all of its citizens and closing its gender gap.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.