A Compassionate Feminist Agenda

Posted: Jun 09, 2020

The fifth instalment of Reflections in the time of COVID-19 comes from Jaclyn A. Siegel, a doctoral fellow in social psychology at Western University (Canada)

Over the past several weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged and changed the way we live, work, and communicate. While the coronavirus has undeniably affected every person living through this unsettling time, the gendered consequences of the pandemic cannot be understated. Indeed, the societal ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak have been described as “a disaster for feminism” (Lewis, 2020; see also Valenti, 2020). Since the start of the pandemic in North America, there has been a sharp uptick in domestic and misogynistic violence (Black, 2020; Taub, 2020), and racist messaging has permeated media and political coverage (Devakumar et al., 2020). Women have disproportionately become unemployed due to COVID-19 related layoffs and furloughs (Kurtzleben, 2020), and working women and mothers continue to perform the majority of emotional and unpaid labour while completing occupational tasks from home (Miller, 2020). Although it is too soon to be certain what the long-term societal ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak will be, economists have expressed concern that various hard-fought personal and political feminist advances (e.g., political involvement, economic empowerment, safety and agency) may ultimately be reversed due to the lasting financial, social, and emotional consequences of the pandemic (Goodyear-Grant, 2020; Grown & Sánchez-Páramo, 2020).

The toll this may take on women in the academy is simply unimaginable. Various journals have already reported a sharp decline in female-authored (but not male-authored) manuscript submissions (Flaherty, 2020), and female scholars have documented their exhaustion and burnout from attempting to simultaneously work their first and second shifts of paid and unpaid work at home (e.g., Minello, 2020). Women, and particularly women of colour, already occupy fewer high-ranking positions in the academy (Shepherd, 2017). Given that publications are necessary for promotion and tenure, women’s stalled academic output may have detrimental effects on their academic advancement. Whether in solitary self-isolation, caring for families, healing from illness, grieving the loss of loved ones, or simply managing the depression and anxiety that accompany living through a global pandemic, we are all facing uniquely impossible circumstances that have limited our ability to think, imagine, and create. As feminist scholars have observed for decades (see Ahmed, 2010; Murray, 2018), the tireless effort required to comply with the rigorous demands of the neoliberal academy are fundamentally unsustainable for women, and the past few weeks have only heightened pre-existing social barriers to women’s academic prowess.

However, while our potential to produce has been greatly compromised, our ability to care for one another has not. Feminist scholars have long called for an ethic of care in our research and pedagogy (Tronto, 1993), and if there was ever a time to practice radical compassion in all domains of academic life, it is now. In order to preserve ourselves and our sanity, competition must be replaced with collaboration, and productivity must be sacrificed for patience. This crisis has shown us that it is possible to prioritize survival, nurturance, and well-being when it is necessary. We must demand that this compassion be woven into the foundation of the post-pandemic academy.

What practical steps can we take to move toward a compassionate academia? In all of our advocacy and activism, we must prioritize the needs of women whose experiences will undoubtedly be further complicated by racism, ableism, weightism, cissexism, heterosexism, and classism. Critically, those in positions of institutional power must advocate for junior scholars. For example, we must implore university deans and presidents to extend tenure clocks for early career researchers and support adjunct professors by providing opportunities for secure employment. Mentors must also champion female graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, who now face a dilapidated academic job market and financial uncertainty (Kelsky, 2020), while remaining flexible with degree-related deadlines and expectations. We all must be willing to perform the emotional labour of checking in, of holding one another’s pain and grief, of assisting with the mundane challenges that pandemic life has revealed and exacerbated – and those on the receiving end of this selflessness must express our gratitude and reciprocate, enthusiastically and often. We must care for our students, whose lives and dreams have been upended by the pandemic, and we must insist that their physical and mental health are more important than their academic achievement. What’s more, it is essential that we extend this same understanding, forgiveness, and tolerance to ourselves. We all must recognize that we as individuals are not at fault for failing to meet the unrealistic demands of a patriarchal institution that benefits from and capitalizes on our sense of personal inadequacy.

Kindness and empathy have the potential to guide us through and carry us forward into the future of academia. Ultimately, radical compassion for one another and ourselves must be an integral part of our collective feminist agenda for the post-pandemic academy.


Thank you to Traci Carson, Melanie Arenson, and Rose Friel, for their thoughtful commentary and helpful feedback on this piece.

Additional References

Ahmed, S. (2010). Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Devakumar, D., Shannon, G., Bhopal, S. S., & Abubakar, I. (2020). Racism and discrimination in COVID-19 responses. The Lancet, 395(10231), p1194. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30792-3

Murray, Ó. M. (2018). Feel the fear and killjoy anyway: Being a challenging feminist presence in precarious academia. Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University, 163–189. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-64224-6_8

Shepherd, S. (2017). Why are there so few female leaders in higher education: A case of structure or agency? Management in Education, 31(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020617696631

Tronto, J. (1993). Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. Routledge.

Author bio

Jaclyn A. Siegel (she/her) is a doctoral fellow in social psychology at Western University (Canada). Her research focuses on feminist attitudes and identity, gender prescriptions and proscriptions, eating disorders and body image, and sexism and sexual objectification. She has published research in journals such as Psychology of Women Quarterly, Psychology of Men and Masculinities, and Archives of Sexual Behavior. She is presently serving as a guest editor at Psychology of Women Quarterly for a special issue on feminist psychology and open science and is presently on the academic job market for 2021.

Categories: Feminist Psychology Mentors Empathy