Key Points:

The Human Rights Commission is celebrating one of the few areas where New Zealand beats Australia - equality of the sexes.

The commission's Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Judy McGregor, says New Zealand's performance in keeping fifth place behind only four Scandinavian countries in the latest Global Gender Gap Report is "remarkable".

By contrast, Australia dropped from 13th-equal in 2000 and 17th last year to 21st place this year, behind many poorer countries, such as the Philippines, Mozambique and Lesotho.

"Australia has lagged behind the world," Dr McGregor said.

"It's only just getting round to introducing paid parental leave, although it has moved to 18 weeks which is more than New Zealand [14 weeks]. It has taken a long, long time, throughout the Howard Government, to get around to acting on women's inequality."

The report, produced by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, shows that New Zealand outranked Australia on seven of the 14 measures of gender equality, equalled it on six and fell behind by only 0.2 per cent on one of the two measures of income inequality.

Norway topped the list of 130 countries, followed by Finland, Sweden, Iceland and New Zealand.

The same four countries topped the list when the report was first produced in 2000, but in that year Britain just beat New Zealand into fifth place. This year, Britain is down to 13th place.

One of the peculiarities of the report is that 11 per cent of the total index is accounted for by the number of years in the past 50 that the country has had a female head of government.

New Zealand has had female Prime Ministers for 11 years since Jenny Shipley ousted Jim Bolger in December 1997, more than all but seven other countries. Sri Lanka was first on this score, with female leaders for 23 of the past 50 years, helping it to 12th place in the overall index.

Australia is one of 90 countries that have never had a female leader in the past 50 years.

New Zealand also outranked Australia on the number of female MPs (33 per cent, against 27 per cent), a number which rose to 34 per cent after last Saturday's election. Similarly, 32 per cent of Government ministers were female in New Zealand, but just 24 per cent in Australia.

New Zealand ranked 15th and Australia 13th, on official figures for earned income, a measure combining average wage rates and hours of work. Women's estimated total income was only 70.01 per cent of men's in New Zealand, against 70.03 per cent across the Tasman.