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Women to Watch: Time to ‘makeup’ for progress lost during pandemic | COMMENTARY

The pandemic is over in the same way the fight for women’s rights is over. The devastating and ongoing effects are easily obscured by the undeniable progress that has been made.

Vaccines, check! Woman vice president, check!

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Antibody therapy, check! A seat at the table, check!

Masks, check! Makeup available in every skin tone, check!

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Wait a minute, you say; makeup isn’t exactly the type of warp-speed advancement we might consider notable in the continuum of equal rights. But Rihanna — the superstar behind the shape-shifting, industry-changing brand Fenty Beauty, which has brought us the rainbow foundation of multitudes — is certainly of note.

She of recent membership to the billionaire class — unmarried and child-free — is exactly someone who can be readily cited as an example of the spectacular advancement of women, not to mention Black women. Who can really argue with that kind of achievement?

If only we could all stand under her umbrella.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of women in the job force is at its lowest level since 1988. There are fewer Black women, Hispanic women and white women employed compared with early 2020 before the pandemic hit. More than a million moms, with children under age 13, are no longer working.

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In other words, over the past year or so, women’s progress has hit a fairly significant bump, and how we structure the ongoing economic recovery will determine if it’s simply a slowdown or a U-turn.

There are some signs that, as always, women will make a way. Nearly half of new entrepreneurs in 2020 were women, according to a survey by Gusto, a company that administers payrolls and employee benefits. The same survey showed that for a majority of these startups, the innovation was clearly driven by economic need, with about a third of all respondents saying their new endeavor was the result of a job loss.

Across the U.S. labor market, the jobs that have disappeared have been in sectors where women are typically represented at higher numbers including education, retail, hospitality and personal services. This decline in employment opportunities had a major impact on minority women, according to The Pew Research Center.

Of the 2.4 million women exiting the labor pool from February 2020 to February 2021, over a million were Black or Hispanic. “Collectively, Hispanic and Black women accounted for 46% of the total decrease among women but represent less than one-third of the female labor force in the U.S.,” a Pew analysis found.

Add to that the loss of women in senior roles, either through early retirement, burnout or child care needs, that is reversing strides made in corporate leadership. The Women in the Workplace 2020 study by McKinsey & Company, in partnership with LeanIn.org, found top-level working women were 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to consider “downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Almost three in four cite burnout as a main reason.” Altogether, the study found the changes wrought by the pandemic could setback working women by half a decade or more.

Maybe that sounds puny, but it took less than a year to come up with some fairly incredible vaccines to protect us against COVID-19. What if we just wiped away that progress? Big advancements sometimes come in great leaps, but more often it’s small steady strides forward that lead us to where we want to be.

Strides like those made by the 25 Women to Watch featured here. A woman who was her family’s first college graduate and now she’s the first Black president of a local community college. A former government cybersecurity expert who now leads an executive office for a Fortune 500 company. An immigrant who was told she wasn’t the type to get a college degree and proved those early doubters wrong by being the type to get multiple college degrees.

It’s not that these stories cannot or will not happen in our post-pandemic world (whenever we get there). They absolutely will — but not in a vacuum. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we won’t be able to decide what we must gain and how.

Changes to the U.S. workforce over the past year or more have upended calculations for measuring women’s progress. A refreshed women’s movement that focuses on job retention, child care support, living wages and small business incubators for the innovations women are eager to create.

That’s the new foundation we really need.

And one of Rihanna’s Fenty Killawatt highlighters couldn’t hurt.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features. She can be reached at nzimmerman@baltsun.com.

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