Women around the world are only slowly smashing the glass ceiling keeping them from political power while many run a lifelong gauntlet of violence, according to a UN report released on Wednesday.
Only seven of the 150 elected heads of state are women, a slight improvement over the past decade, but The World's Women 2010 report said physical, sexual and psychological violence remain a "universal phenomenon."
Progress has been made in recent years on women's health and education but "much more needs to be done, in particular to close the gender gap in public life and to prevent the many forms of violence to which women are subjected," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
Inequality between men and women is "highly visible" in the political arena, said the UN report, which is produced once every five years.
The likes of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany or Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh are in a stunning minority among powerbrokers. Only 14 women are either heads of state or lead the government in their country.
On average, only one in six cabinet ministers around the world is a woman, though that figure has doubled since 1998.
The report noted "slow but steady improvement" in national representation yet only 23 countries see women having over 30 per cent of the seats in the main parliament chamber.
China was considered a leader in East Asia because 21 percent of its deputies are women. At the other end of the scale, in Belize, Micronesia, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Solomon Islands, there are no women in parliament.
Women have fared little better in business.
"Despite some advances toward equality in the private sector, the gaps in the corporate sphere remain enormous," said the report, highlighting huge differences in pay as well as the lack of women in top jobs.
"Evidence suggests that corporate boards with more female members have greater participation of members in decision-making and better board governance."
Yet in 2009, only 13 of the 500 biggest companies had a female chief executive. "The glass ceiling appears to be the most impenetrable in the largest corporations," the report said.
Girls and women, face a risk of "physical, sexual and psychological abuse" from their partners or strangers throughout their lives, it added.
The phenomenon "cuts across lines of income, class and culture," it added.
In national surveys, the number of women who said they had been the victims of physical violence in their lifetime ranged from 12 per cent in Hong Kong and China, to almost 40 per cent in Germany, nearly 50 per cent in Australia and 60 per cent in Zambia.
About 20 per cent of women in India, England and Wales, said they had experience violence from a husband or intimate partner in their lifetimes. In Turkey the figure rose to almost 40 per cent and in rural Peru to 60 per cent.
The report highlighted wide-ranging discrimination, with women in developed countries spending an average five hours a day on domestic chores and looking after the family -- twice as much as men.
In Nordic countries and the United States, however, the number of hours spent by women on household work has decreased while the average for men has increased.