Northern Ireland has risen to number two in a key index showing the position of women in the economy, according to a report today.
The women in work index by business advisory firm PwC said Northern Ireland had risen two points in the index over the last year.
The report shows that Northern Ireland has the smallest gender pay gap of all regions by four percentage points, and the gap between the percentage of men and women in work has decreased (from 10% to 8%) and is now below the UK average of 10%. The research was carried out ahead of International Women's Day, which takes place on Sunday.
The region has also seen an increase in the number of women entering the local workforce, which hit a joint record high in the last quarter of 2019, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (418,000 in employment).
Lynne Rainey, PwC NI partner, said: "The single biggest factor in Northern Ireland moving up the index is the increase in the number of women coming into the workforce.
"This underlines how important it is that we continue to find ways to remove the traditional barriers that prevent women from choosing to work and enabling them to fully participate in society.
"Practical and progressive approaches like having flexible working hours, working from home policies and returnerships which support women to re-enter the workforce all have a role.
"It's also crucial that women get the right opportunities to upskill in the face of increasing automation as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution."
She added: "Introducing these approaches may mean substantial changes in some businesses, but the prize of getting it right is the prospect of significant economic gains."
While women are entering into the workforce in Northern Ireland in greater numbers, the number of female chief executives of top companies here remains low.
According to the 2019 Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies, just three firms here are led by women - consumer goods giant SHS Group, Progressive Building Society and NI Water. They are led by Elaine Birchall, Darina Armstrong and Sara Venning.
However, all four of Northern Ireland's main business groups are led by women.
The Federation of Small Businesses is led by Tina McKenzie and the Institute of Directors NI by Kirsty McManus. Ann McGregor is the chief executive of the NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry, while Angela McGowan leads the CBI here.
Ms Rainey said Northern Ireland had seen the largest narrowing of the gender pay gap since 2000 - but that the rate of decrease in the size of the gap had slowed down.
But she added: "There's no room for complacency when you consider the difference between female earnings in the public and private sectors, where women earn 3% more than men in the former and 16% less in the latter. This remains an area that needs to be remedied."