Sandra Veronica Portocarrero

Sandra Veronica Portocarrero

Dissertation Review Committee

Research Interest

Bio

I am an organizational and cultural sociologist who studies the dynamics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in relation to inequality. I examine the work lives of DEI workers and how organizations continue to exclude people from minoritized racial groups and disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds despite their intentions to build an inclusive climate. Using primarily qualitative methods, I investigate how DEI shapes interpersonal dynamics and multi-level meaning-making processes in distinct settings—a large public university, an elite college, and the U.S. Department of State. Contact me for further information or for complete drafts of the manuscripts below. 

A Theory of Racialized Expertise: DEI in Organizations 

The persistent exclusion of minoritized racial groups in U.S. society has sparked conversations around DEI across organizations. While previous research has focused on the impact of DEI practices, there is little research on DEI workers and on DEI as a form of expertise. Specifically, research on the experiences of DEI workers has yet to ascertain: (a) What role does the ethnoracial background of DEI workers play in their perceived fit to fulfill the tasks associated with DEI expertise? and (b) How are workers' self-presentations aligned with organizational norms on what counts as DEI expertise? My dissertation, Race, Expertise, and DEI Workers, is an in-depth qualitative study of the work lives of DEI workers at Redwood (pseudonym), a large R1 university in California. I answer these questions by triangulating in-depth interview data with over 50 workers, participant-observer data gathered at university events, and an analysis of narratives posted on Redwood's website. I identify the processes that led to the emergence of what I call racialized expertise at Redwood.

My findings show that the ethnoracial background of DEI workers is presented and perceived as a quasi-credential attesting to their preparation to fulfill the tasks associated with DEI work. When answering a question about what previous experiences have prepared them for their current positions, workers at Redwood referred to the lived personal experiences of non-White workers as a form of preparation for this type of work. White DEI workers, in contrast, answered this question differently. They highlighted their previous professional experiences, rarely referring to their ethno-racial background as a relevant experience. For example, while non-White workers interspersed their answers with discursive markers of ethno-racial positionality - phrases such as "as a Black man in America" or "growing up Mexican-American in Chicago" - these expressions were absent from the answers of White DEI workers.

My findings also suggest that workers' self-presentations are aligned with organizational norms of what counts as DEI expertise. When Redwood hires a non-White DEI worker, the organization usually releases a profile of this worker on their website, highlighting their personal experiences and racial background. In contrast, Redwood rarely announces the hiring of White DEI workers. The few profiles of White DEI workers showcased on Redwood's website list the worker's previous professional experience but do not mention personal experiences related to the person's racial background. Organizational norms, therefore, continue to perpetuate the racial hierarchy in which being white is the "unmarked" category, against which all others are marked as different ("diverse"). To explain this juxtaposition, I developed a theory of racialized expertise that elucidates how the ethnoracial background of workers is taken into consideration when evaluating their credentials to perform specific tasks and jobs.

The Ideal Race-Typed DEI Worker Image and Its Consequences on Workplace Inequality 

When organizations seek to fill specific jobs, a powerful factor that shapes processes of evaluation is the prototypical image of an ideal worker shared  by members of the relevant occupation and by organizational leaders. For example, in the high-tech and financial industry the prototypical ideal worker is one who is fully committed to and always available for their work, with no external commitments that limit this devotion. Scholars have argued that the ideal  worker prototype is implicitly gendered in many organizations, and thus it is a crucial driver of gender inequality in hiring and promotion . But we know less about the racialized ideal worker prototype and how this established image might perpetuate racial inequality in organizations. In this paper, we analyze a case in which the prototypical image of the ideal worker is racialized. Between 2019 and 2021, we conducted interviews with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) workers in an elite public university (henceforth called “Redwood”). We found that both DEI workers and their organizational colleagues at Redwood envisioned the prototypical ideal DEI worker to be a member of a minority group, preferably a Black person. This prototype was reflected in  (1) how colleagues and organizational leaders  at Redwood evaluated the expertise of white and non-White DEI workers and (2) how non-white DEI workers intertwined their life narratives in accounts of their expertise, while white DEI workers did not do so. We are preparing this paper for submission. 

Race, Organizational Contexts, and Status Beliefs (with James T. Carter at Columbia Business School) 

In a paper currently under review, I show how recipients of a prestigious U.S. Department of State Fellowship unequally experience holding this accolade because they are held to racialized evaluations of status-worthiness and competence among peers. Drawing from sociological and psychological literatures on status, I elucidate status processes among winners of the Pickering Fellowship, a prestigious United States Department of State fellowship. Specifically, we take a qualitative approach to explain how, immediately after winning the Pickering Fellowship, new fellows experience a sudden positive status shift and move up within the hierarchy of their social systems. I further show how once they enter their new workplace (i.e., the U.S. Department of State), fellows experience negative consequences for holding this fellowship. I unpack and explain how the racialization of the fellowship gives rise to a status belief that stigmatizes fellowship holders and shapes their interactions in their workplace. Importantly, this work shows how a sudden positive status shift carries negative consequences to those who experience it. 

The Maintenance of Exclusion (with Gerardo Okhuysen at UC Irvine Merage School Of Business) 

I have also studied how institutional actors maintain exclusion despite organizational DEI efforts. In my study of the experiences of recipients of a prestigious, merit-based scholarship for low-income students at an elite university in Peru, I find that everyday interactions and seemingly well-intentioned inclusive initiatives that exclude this group of non-elite students while simultaneously preserving the exclusivity of Electi. Drawing from rich participant-observer, interview, and archival data gathered in 2017–2018 at Electi University (pseudonym), I show how, through daily interactions and implemented inclusive initiatives, elite students, administrative personnel, professors, and security guards transmit meaning systems and norms that sustain exclusion at Electi. This paper won the 2021 Society for the Studies of Social Sciences Educational Problems Division Best Graduate Student Paper Award.

Reducing Ambiguity around Diversity in Organizations (with James T. Carter at Columbia Business School) 

In an article under review, I integrate the literature on diversity in organizations that have shaped our conversations for the last 50 years. I first review the historically-informed approaches that shed light on the roots of the ambiguity around diversity management in organizations. I then review selected social psychological literature on diversity, particularly the works that inform diversity practices. Finally, I review the literature that explores the advantages of diversity in groups and the benefits of implemented diversity initiatives in organizations and the literature that examines the disadvantages of group diversity and when diversity initiatives fail in organizations. I integrate these three bodies of literature to offer a review of organizational diversity literature that will help readers and writers reduce ambiguity around the term diversity and better specify what they mean when referring to “diversity in organizations.”

To learn more about my scholastic activities, please contact me at [email protected]

Education

  • M.Phil. in Sociology. Columbia University. 
  • M.A. in Sociology. Columbia University. 
  • B.A. in Sociology (High Honors and Distinction in General Scholarship. University of California, Berkeley 
  • Intersegmental General Education Transfer Certificate (IGETC). Berkeley City College.