Don Dillman Fellowship: Interview with inaugural recipient, Andrea De La Barrera Montppellier

In the Spring 2021 Issue of Sociology News, we announced the Don Dillman Fellowship and featured an interview with Sociology alumni Leah Christian and Jolene Smyth, who launched the fellowship to honor the impact of Don Dillman.

Andrea is forward facing and smiling.
Andrea De La Barrera Montppellier.

In this Issue, we are pleased to feature the inaugural award winner of the Don Dillman Fellowship, Andrea De La Barrera Montppellier. Andrea is originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and her areas of interest are gender equality, gendered justice, violence against women, judiciaries, human rights, and Mexico. We spoke with Andrea about her background, her dissertation research and the role of the Dillman fellowship in supporting and advancing her research, and her postdoctoral plans.

The Don Dillman Fellowship provides dissertation research funds for graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees in the Department of Sociology in some capacity at WSU. The fellowship honors Don Dillman’s commitment to supporting graduate students and their research, and his passion for improving survey research and other data-collection methods. Thank you to all our donors who have contributed to this fellowship thus far. If you are interested in making a donation to the Don Dillman Fellowship, please visit the WSU Foundation’s online giving site.

Sadie: Please briefly tell us about your background.

Andrea: My scholarly background goes back to my bachelor’s degree. I studied international relations, with a concentration on transnational social movements. I also got a scholarship to study gender, globalization, and governance in Canada.

After I graduated, although I was interested in research, I was more interested in practical social change, so I volunteered with feminist organizations from 2003 to 2010. In the university where I studied, the international relations bachelor’s degree has a strong formation in international law and political economy. So I volunteered for CLADEM, a Latin American and Caribbean Network; their slogan is “Women using law as a tool of change.” It’s one of the main networks that wrote and passed the International Convention on the Prevention, Sanction, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Belem Do Para Convention) in the Inter-American Human Rights System.

In this work, I was part of the litigation against Mexico in which we got the first ruling on charges of state responsibility in the preventable killing of women in Ciudad Juarez. This is a flagship ruling in the inter-American system because it reaffirmed the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court to rule on Belem Do Para Convention and established that when judiciaries and justice administrators fail to analyze violence against women with a gender perspective and as isolated cases they are failing in their responsibility to apply due process without discrimination.

During this time, my paid work was in traditional human rights organizations. I worked with a civil rights organization in Mexico City, which was the first one to defend cases against Mexican government civil rights violations through comprehensive strategies. It started with the civil rights that were violated during the ’70s in the systemic violent repression of social and political movements during the so-called “dirty war” and then expanded to include economic, social, and cultural rights. When I got there in 2003 or ’04, my role was as the organizational development officer.

From there, I started collaborating with other organizations, like Fundar, which is a research analysis center like a think tank. Around 2010, I started working as a consultant on incorporating gender and human rights perspectives into public policy processes at the local, sub-regional, and national level with organizations such as nonprofits and government organizations.

After a couple of processes of applied research, I realized I needed to know the current state of the research on social change, public institutions, and strategic organization. So, I enrolled in a master’s program at the Instituto Mora in Mexico in political sociology and studied the discursive politics around gender equality.

The context is that, in Mexico, since 1971, the feminist movement has achieved several milestones since the incorporation of formal gender equality as an individual guarantee and protections for female workers in the Constitution up to the passing, in 2007, of two national legislations: one that set the coordination necessary to achieve substantive equality between women and men, and the other one to guarantee the right of women to live free of violence. These national laws are the outcome of at least three waves of public policy and laws led by the Mexican feminist movements. In tandem, in 2011, the Mexican human rights movement achieved a major structural constitutional reform that leveled the hierarchy of interpretation for International Human Rights Treaties bringing them to Constitutional level. This structural change implies that CEDAW and Belem Do Para Conventions are to be interpreted at the highest hierarchical level.

One of the puzzles I’m interested in is what happens when the demands of social movements get institutionalized and how they are disputed within public institutions. So, my research used a sort of content analysis called the method of structural analysis in which you analyze a rhetoric to find out the core values that are below it. I wanted to know how the dispute of gender equality was going and I investigated the meaning that was provided in the rulings. As we know, the findings are that even if the principle of gender equality is incorporated formally, it is disputed in the rulings and there are core androcentric and masculinist values that are profoundly institutionalized. So the interpretations take the gender equality part at face value but they interpret in ways that are not according to international standards. It was an interesting but depressing investigation. But of course there’s this dispute and this pull to sustain androcentric values from the law and the state order. There are interesting interpretations and litigations that help point the other way, and leave, like carabiners when you’re climbing a mountain, so that other people can get there and continue that path.

Since I came from an applied background, for my master’s I was originally thinking about international cooperation, but then I discovered political sociology and I was fascinated with how we can improve measurement and in the sense of the second level observation of what we’re doing as scholars. It might sound corny, but I was fascinated with sociology and the possibilities and potential that it has, and the possibility it has to falsify your core beliefs, so I wanted to do my PhD in sociology.

Sadie: There’s a lot about your background I didn’t know and is great to hear about in more depth. Can you talk about what led you to the WSU Sociology department to pursue your PhD?

Andrea: I come from international relations, which is more aligned with the political science scholarly world. In international relations theory, we see nation states as rational actors, so the domestic aspect is lost. So through my major I wondered, how come people are not studying what’s going on within the nations? Then I discovered sociology, and of course, there’s a whole discipline that does this.

One of my passions is political philosophy and one of my gurus is Nancy Fraser (laughs). When I read feminist theory, I read it within the movement, so I didn’t distinguish a lot between, for example, Catherine MacKinnon or Gayle Rubin or bell hooks. I was able to audit a class with Gayle Rubin and she talked about the politics of the feminist movement and academia in the U.S. in the ’70s, so, then I realized that in Mexico and other countries, when we access English reading texts of theory, we really don’t know the context. It was shocking for me. When we look at the organization of the state from a feminist perspective, we just mix the authors without understanding the politics behind it and how this knowledge is produced. So I started to glance how there were political differences in the production of knowledge.

I was more interested in attending a state school than a private school because of the differences between those places, such as political and other constraints and the outcomes of that. Also I got the Fulbright scholarship, and they have a huge interest in finding a good match for you. I realized during my master’s program the possibility of measuring and counting things and what that tells us about the social world. Although we did have quantitative methods training I didn’t feel that proficient. There’s more emphasis on theory than empirical work. So when I started looking at sociology programs, I noticed that there was a strong inclination for quantitative methods, and I wanted to learn this. I looked at the research in this department and knew it was something I wanted to learn. The main motivation for coming here was learning the methods that are not necessarily taught in other departments.

Sadie: Thank you for sharing. It’s interesting to hear about the contextual differences. Can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation research?

Andrea: Most of my professional, scholarly, personal, and activist interest centers on gender inequality. In 2011, I was part of a research team that evaluated the incorporation of gender perspective in judiciary and administrative staff in fourteen state-level courts in Mexico. We used Joan Acker’s work along with findings from evaluation of international gender mainstreaming policies to build a methodological feminist framework.  We conducted in-depth interviews, focus groups, and a representative survey. After that experience, I was convinced about the importance of measuring policy interventions.

For my dissertation, I’m using Joan Acker’s gendered organization theory and Kanter’s tokenism theory, which is a bit different from the political science tokenism. Basically, with political science you see rational action cause a specific change, and with law you try to impact the socio-political order and incorporate equity or justice values into the mainstream. But with sociology you get a picture of how things are and realities in organizations. So when I think about the Kanter theory of tokenism, you’re looking at how the gender distribution of an organization affects the way in which people act or behave. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to look at with my dissertation.

In general, I’m interested in what makes people aware that they’ve been discriminated against in workplaces. When you’re in an organization in which people are sincerely committed to the values of equality—even if the routines, culture, and everyday practices of these organizations tend to resort to the inequality systems—it is more difficult for their members to recognize inequities in everyday interactions. So, when you talk to people working there, they’ll say, “Oh, no, I’m not being discriminated against—that’s just the way this workplace works.”

My dissertation questions are to what extent do gender beliefs held by Mexican academics relate to the antecedents of discrimination disputes in male-dominated scientific and engineering workplaces? And to what extent do intolerant beliefs, like sexism, held by Mexican academics relate to everyday sexist events experienced by women working in male-dominated scientific and engineering fields?

There’s an emerging cadre of sociologists interested in what’s going on with engineering and how in the U.S., and more lately transnationally,  the engineering field continues to be male-dominated. There’s interesting research by Erin Cech on how the socialization processes in engineering schools contribute to less student interest in the social world and equity, so there’s something going on in the professionalization in schools which parallels the research on what happens in the context of law schools. There is also an emerging body of research by engineers reflecting and measuring gender representation.

Through 2017-2020, I collaborated as a graduate assistant for Dr. Julie Kmec in an NSF-funded project where I coded data from focus groups to understand the experiences and choices of engineers in countries with high enrollment of women in engineering, such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Malaysia. Some of the factors explored in the United States address gender expression and identity as conflicting with the professional identity in male-typed occupations. As an anecdote, most of my older female cousins in Mexico are engineers and I had not thought about it until I started working on this project. Most of the colleagues I have met during my Fulbright scholarship are also graduate students in engineering and STEM. So, I was interested in how gender segregation in the workplace persists even if women’s enrollment is slowly but steadily increasing.

From my perspective, I’m interested in how awareness of gender discrimination and rights consciousness may play a role. I’m trying to see how women in science and engineering identify personal discrimination in the workplace because, according to theory, they shouldn’t and it’s difficult to do so. Normally, women with a certain level of education will identify gender inequality in the world but not personal events of gender discrimination, especially in organizations in which androcentrism is a core, but unacknowledged, part of the professional training. I’m adapting Felstiner’s framework of disputes and the antecedents of disputes, which makes three phases—that is name, blame, and claim—before an actual discrimination legal or formal procedure occurs. I’m trying to see if that framework helps us understand, first, if women in scientific and engineering fields in Mexico see discrimination; then, if they are able to place the blame on the employer; and if they claim it with somebody else. From research in sociology we know that if there are support networks, it’s more likely; if there’s a framing that the behavior is anti-social, its more likely; but the theory says people will excuse and justify the injurious event as part of their professional identity, work culture, or social forces out of anybody’s control.

Sadie: Super interesting and important work, and again, very cool to hear about it more in-depth. Gender segregation in occupations is so sticky. Can you talk about the survey component of your dissertation?

Andrea: Two researchers, Hope Landrine and Elizabeth A. Klonoff, developed a scale of everyday sexism or discrimination against women to measure everyday sexism in different areas of the life experience (work, school, services, family, etc.) and I wanted to apply this scale to measure discrimination against women in the Mexican workplace.

In Mexico, empirical studies of discrimination or measuring discrimination is a recent field. The Mexican Census Office (INEGI) included a survey on discrimination for the first time in 2017. There is a national survey that measures household dynamics since 2011 and it is one of the few instruments that measures violence against women. However, there are not many detailed measures of sexism or discrimination in the workplace.

So, discrimination in general is something that has not been necessarily well measured. The last census, in 2020, was the first time that they asked people to identify as Black or African descendants. When we talk about the Mexican state formation, we know the nation states are political designs. They create national identity stories, and there are people that have been excluded by design. We come from a colonization process in which Afro-Mexicans and Indigenous communities are still facing a lot of difficulties, even getting counted in the census. So, there are different stages of state formation and, thus, sources of discrimination at the national and state level. One is that you’re not considered a citizen legally or practically depending on your social location. When we’re talking about discrimination and how it’s researched, this history of the state formation is important.

There are a handful studies that follow models like Devah Pager’s research, and people in sociology and demography departments are starting to count discrimination and figuring out how discrimination works. Much of this research focuses rightly on ethnic and racial discrimination, and on social classes discrimination, but there is little about gender discrimination. There’s really little information on gender discrimination in the workplace and discrimination in the workplace in general. The main source of information is legal cases because Mexico has a specialized system of tribunals that seek to reconcile and arbitrate work rights violations.

The studies on women as academics have been mostly on Mexico city because Mexico is so centralized. We can think of Mexico City as a core, and the rest of the country as an heterogenous periphery. All the political powers are based in Mexico City, the biggest universities, and most of the resources are drawn toward Mexico City. If you want to do politics or something, you have to go to Mexico City. So there are a lot of studies done on UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), which is the top university in the Latin American region. They’re really telling, but it doesn’t give the full picture.

I want to understand how sexist events are distributed for academics along the different regions in Mexico. I’m interested in knowing in areas that are masculine dominated, like 70% men, how prevalent sexist events are and how they relate to intolerant beliefs. The more experimental part of the dissertation is using the Felstiner name, blame, and claim framework. Unless sexist events are highly blatant, we expect that people in masculine-dominated areas will have more difficulty naming gender discrimination, so I want to see the characteristics of people that name, blame, and claim discrimination. We assume that sexism, racism, and classism will be related positively with everyday sexist events, but we haven’t measured that.

Sadie: How is the Dillman fellowship providing support and helping you complete this work?

Andrea: For the particular context of Mexico, the reality is that since 2006 Mexico started a so-called drug war in which the government seeks to eliminate organized crime. By not having a clear strategy, it led the country to a spiral of violence for territorial control amongst organized crime groups. This situation turned into a humanitarian crisis (as recognized by the International Red Cross) and has served the governments as a rhetorical strategy to criminalize and repress journalists and human rights defenders. There are regions in the country where violence is really high. We’re talking about surveys, what do survey methods have to do with violence? When you think about how fieldwork has been conducted in the last decade in Mexico, it is an important question, because if you want to go and do fieldwork in Mexico, you have to be aware that there are regions that are not safe. You must consider the risks involved with conducting fieldwork. For these reasons, I am conducting an online survey.

Thinking about surveys, I found work that’s been monitoring governments and seeing how they use numbers to accommodate their rhetoric. Public opinion surveys used in electoral campaigns can be maligned because the numbers are intended to be used to forward public policy and measures that may hurt the public. So there’s a way to use numbers irresponsibly and that’s common sense about surveys. I wanted to take Don Dillman’s survey research methods class to understand how surveys work. It takes me back to part of what sociology does, and sociology uses surveys to take pictures of social conditions. The Dillman fellowship is providing the means to design a scientific survey so that I’m sure that the picture that I’m taking is accurate.

The class helped a lot in the design of the survey. For example, right now I’m working on how to improve the response rate. We know that the response rates are low generally, but what can we do in the recruiting process to avoid having a really low response rate? The class and the fellowship helped me think about the design, how to improve it overall, but most important, how can the database that I’m constructing be used scientifically to measure what I’m trying to measure. I’m still figuring out my comprehensive recruitment strategy and part of the funding is going to be used for recruitment.

Another thing that is important is the confidentiality and the ethical part of research. I’m doing an online survey, but the other component of my dissertation is an interview-based project, and there are different things that need to be considered when you’re using different mediums. Mexico is under the European Union standards of confidentiality and data management, so that means that I have to implement a protocol for how I’m doing the data collection and managing confidentiality. It has to be processed in a strict way to be certain that I’m not putting my participants at risk. So, in order to design that and get that level of care, the fellowship helps pay for this.

Sadie: Mixed methods! Can you speak to how the interview component fits into the project?

Andrea: It goes back to my initial interest of the research and how exporting a framework to another context will work. I’m interested in documenting the experiences of women in highly dominated scientific and academic workplaces. Sociologists who have studied sex discrimination in the workplace have found that gender is more prominent in organizations in which the core work is gender-typed, like STEM disciplines. However, sociologists and psychologists have also found that certain conditions lead to the denial of personal discrimination. Much of the research in this area is quantitative and centers less on the personal experiences and perspectives of women navigating workplaces. From my perspective this is a missing fundamental piece of the research, and the interview portion of my dissertation seeks to listen and learn from the experiences of Mexican women in male-dominated academic workplaces. The interviews will be conducted before the survey for two main reasons; first, to avoid priming participants with the survey. The second reason is that the survey is based on scales and research focused primarily on middle-class professional women in the United States. Thus, the exploratory measures for the Felstiner framework and some of the theoretical assumptions, like the denial of personal discrimination, will be validated with interview data.

Sadie: That makes sense in helping shape a survey that is valid. Can you talk more about your experience in Don’s class?

Andrea: The class was interesting for me in the sense that it’s one of the few in our department in which the practicality of things is part of the content, so I enjoyed thinking again as a practitioner. I think Don Dillman was really generous in sharing his experiences in the survey world and practical and pragmatic questions. That part was really useful. The questions and exercises helped me to evaluate and to reflect on the surveys I had done in my previous work, so I found that stimulating.

And there are social change aspects. If you think about surveys from the second level observation and how the way that we measure reifies certain categories, I think that’s an open question for the survey field in many senses, like in the ethnic and racial axis and the gender axis. So, where is a breaking point in which how we’re measuring reifies? And if you are going to start measuring in a different way, what are you measuring? I think it’s an interesting and challenging time for the survey world as a methodology. Another reason is the boom of popular surveys and everybody doing surveys.

Sadie: I know you’re still dissertating currently, but what do you envision or hope to do post PhD?

Andrea: For my Fulbright scholarship, I intended to build an organization like a think tank or a center with my PhD, in which decision-makers on the ground, like grassroots organizations and public policy people, can access what we know about social change from sociology and from the science.

As I’ve been working in sociology research, I also see a great area of opportunity for people from the scholarly world to learn the knowledge that’s been built outside of academia, so I’m thinking about a place in which these dialogues and conversations can be had on equal footing.

But we know there are different ways to achieve social change, and one of those is through education. As I think through this process, I realize the potential of universities and the coalition of academia to open spaces and be more accessible. When I started my PhD, I was convinced that this center should be an autonomous one, but I’ve been starting to ask, “Why should it be outside? Isn’t that the main purpose of universities”? When we think about WSU, which has this mandate to improve the conditions of the community in which we are, it is important to ask, “How are we providing a space in which the community can access the development of science”? Further, “How is the university listening to the community”? I think there’s something there and I’m interested in how we can make universities more accessible institutions and knowledge production a more democratic process. I’m not sure how it will look but I’m interested in translating sociological jargon into more practical things and demonstrating how practical knowledge can inform the advancement of sociology.