Equal wages, better economy

In which countries do men and women earn a similar amount—and what does that mean for those economies? Fortune investigates.

FORTUNE -- Fair pay and employment for women are not feminist issues; they’re economic ones. Data from a recent World Economic Forum report displays just how essential equal wages can be. A nation’s competitiveness is determined by its talent pool; ignore half the pool and the economy suffers. Japan’s GDP stands to gain 16% if it closes its gender employment gap, according to a report by the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. The same report estimates that by limiting women’s career options, the region’s economies lose out on as much as $46 billion a year.

The path to closing the wage gap begins with education, though it by no means ends there. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women earn more advanced degrees than men, but overall, women represent only 15% of the workforce. Cultural shifts are crucial and often arrive via legislation. The tiny African nation of Lesotho enforces gender quotas in politics and a 12-week paid maternity leave; women there account for nearly half the workforce.