Australia was ranked 17 out of 21 OECD countries on a new gender equality index, beating only the United Kingdom, Austria, Japan and Switzerland.

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Not surprisingly, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark took out top honours on The Fairness and Families Index, due to generous parental leave and family benefit schemes as well as high female workforce participation rates.

The index compiled by UK think-tank The Fatherhood Institute compared policies between countries, ranking them on 10 different markers, including gender pay gaps, parental leave and childcare spending.

It also looked at the number of men in part-time work and female representation on company boards and in parliaments.

Australia came in the middle of the pack in a number of areas, including gender pay, women in parliament and boards and spending on childcare – 0.4 per cent of GDP.

It also rated an average mark for shared care-work responsibilities, with 29 per cent of men in part-time work and doing about half the housework that women do.

On the issue of paid parental leave, Australia was second last behind Switzerland.

The index didn’t consider Labor’s 18-week minimum wage scheme, which begins in January, but researcher Dr Richard Fletcher says it would be unlikely to boost Australia’s position.

“If they do the index again next year we will still be pretty low,” Dr Fletcher from the University of Newcastle said, noting Australia’s scheme is average by world standards.

Dr Fletcher, who helped compile data from Australia for the index, noted that the study had a particular focus on paternity leave.

“The area we fall behind in, and will continue to fall behind in, is paid paternity leave,” he said, noting Labor’s scheme offers eligible secondary carers two weeks’ leave from July 2012.

Dr Fletcher urgedthe government to consider what it can do in the meantime to lift Australia’s ranking on childcare policies and workforce participation rates.