FEMALE empowerment is embraced more today than any other time in world history. And in the global push for gender equality in everything from business to politics, education to health, it's Europe that has made the greatest strides to close the so-called gender gap. Norway, Finland and Sweden are ranked the best countries for gender equality, according to a recent study from the World Economic Forum, the nonprofit organization known for its annual economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, for global leaders. Those Nordic countries and their Western European neighbours account for 16 of the top 30 countries with the greatest gender parity in the world. Meanwhile, the U.S. ranked surprisingly low at No. 27, behind Lesotho (No. 16), Mozambique (No. 18) and Moldova (No. 20). Not surprisingly, the worst-ranked countries were sprinkled throughout the Middle East and Asia. Garden spots like Chad (129th), Saudi Arabia (128th) and Pakistan (127th) populated the bottom of the list. Yemen ranked absolutely worst at No. 130. The Global Gender Gap Report measures the size of the gender gap"the disparity in opportunities available for men and women"for 130 countries in four critical areas: economic participation and opportunity, health and survival, educational attainment, and political empowerment. A country's rank is based on the overall score, which is expressed in a percent. The score represents how much of the gender gap the country has been able to close. A score of 100 per cent would represent perfect equality. The majority of the data come from various non-government organizations, such as the International Labour Organization, United Nations Development Program and the World Health Organization. Norway, ranked No. 1, scored 82 per cent. Finland came in second place with an estimated 82 per cent, while Sweden posted a score of 81.4 per cent. The U.S. has closed 72 per cent of its gender gap, according to the study, while Yemen has closed 47 per cent. "Personally, the U.S. was a surprise," said Saadia Zahidi, one of the study's authors. According to Zahidi, much of the year-to-year fluctuations in the list depend on politics. An election year could easily change a country's overall score depending on how many women are elected to public office. Among the four ranking categories, the U.S. scored lowest in "political empowerment." Tarja Halonen, its female president, helped Finland's score. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, ranked No. 19, had the highest score, thanks to lots of female elected officals. Barbados, included for the first time this year, ranked a surprisingly high 26th. Israel was the highest-ranked country in the Middle East and North Africa region, at 56th. And in Asia and Oceania, the Philippines and Sri Lanka scored spots in the top 20 for the third straight year. - Forbes