Meet Dr. Paige Castellanos, Gender & Agriculture Assistant Research Professor
Whatever the future holds for Dr. Paige, one thing is clear: she will keep working with marginalized agricultural communities and amplifying their voices.
Dr. Paige Castellanos (she/her) is an assistant research professor and program manager for the Gender Equity through Agriculture Research and Education (GEARE) Initiative at Pennsylvania State University. In 2020, she co-edited the book "Routledge Handbook of Gender and Agriculture” which covers major theoretical issues as well as critical empirical shifts in gender and agriculture. As part of her work in the Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture Sciences, she also helps promote the Latin American program within the College.
Recently, Dr. Castellanos finished working on a five-year project known as the Women in Ag Network (WAgN): Honduras funded by USAID Feed the Future Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC-Davis. The project used a gendered economy perspective to understand and promote women's participation in the horticulture value chain in western Honduras and partnered with Zamorano University in Honduras, creating solid relationships. It used mixed-methods (integration of quantitative and qualitative research) data to elucidate how the horticultural value chain can be a tool to support equity and empowerment for women and other marginalized communities.
Through the WAgN project, she created solid relationships with colleagues from Zamorano University that helped her transition into her current role as GEARE’s program manager. The GEARE initiative brings together an interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students focused on the intersections of gender, agriculture, food security, and the environment. Through research, education, and evidence-based outreach, the team is dedicated to addressing global gender inequities. GEARE's purpose is to connect scholars across the globe and raise awareness about the gendered food system and more recently addresses related impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The road to a career in gender and agriculture
Castellanos’s unconventional journey started as an undergrad majoring in French and hotel management at Penn State. After finishing her degree, she moved to Connecticut to work in the hotel industry. She witnessed exacerbating inequalities and poverty of Latinxs and marginalized communities, which inspired her to go back to Penn State and pursue a professional master’s degree in International Affairs. During her program, she took a class in rural sociology, and she realized exactly what she wanted to do. Additionally, through an embedded course on Local Rural Development with travel to Honduras, Dr. Castellanos was able to experience a completely different picture of the world as well as meeting her future advisor. These experiences led her to complete a dual-title in Rural Sociology and International Agriculture and Development at Penn State. She expressed, “The biggest reward of my job is having conversations with people in different communities and listening to their stories. It can be extremely challenging but to see their strength and resilience is incredibly inspiring to me.”
Combining the power of stories and the power of numbers
Dr. Castellanos is a big supporter of mixed methods because it’s the best way for her to answer research questions and address gender issues. In the WAgN project, her team employed mixed-methods research through community and household surveys in Western Honduras. The data collected was used to inform their program design and implementation. Paige believes it is crucial to involve and engage the community and work with organizations at the local level to support what they are already doing instead of implementing a prescribed program. In order to have a long-lasting impact, she believes researchers should include community members in as many stages. This means that the community participates and makes decisions on how research in their community is conducted. The team partnered with the Asociación de Mujeres Intibucanas Renovadas, an indigenous women farmer group that helped them develop a gender-integrated farmer field school.
Putting intersectionality into practice
Dr. Castellanos believes that it is essential to study masculinities and incorporate men into gender programs and initiatives. Intersectionality provides a complete picture of what’s happening with men and women and why inequities exist. In Honduras, the Farmer Field School, which she helped develop, had cohorts that were only women and had cohorts that integrated men and women. This allowed men and women to hear their side of their story and discuss issues of time allocation and household division of labor. However, she mentioned that sometimes men can dominate the conversation, so it is crucial to be aware to provide a space for women’s voices to be heard. Another challenge in incorporating an intersectional framework is the limited resources of some countries and contexts to address the issues and inequalities women face, so including men may take away from necessary resources used for women.
The co-opting of empowerment
Paige voiced that empowerment has lost a lot of its meaning in gender and development discourse. It is helpful for her to guide her work with theoretical frameworks of what power is, who can make decisions or exert power, and in what context.
Influenced by feminist scholars, she expressed, “Empowerment is a journey; you have to be able to follow that path on your own. Creating the conditions for empowerment, we can address those, but we can't force empowerment on somebody else.”
In her research, she used several empowerment indicators. She thinks they have been very practical, particularly from women in agriculture. However, she believes that the Women Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI)could really be called the Gender Empowerment in Agriculture Index because it's looking at gender differences within a household. The tool has been useful to encompass different aspects of men's and women's conditions in agriculture, such as who gets control over specific resources. However, sometimes there can be challenges with these indicators such as having a cut-off and making it a dichotomous variable saying yes, you're empowered or no, you're not empowered. Dr. Castellanos thinks it is essential to go back to the theoretical framing that informed the creations of these measurements and tools. In her work, she has included qualitative research to support and enhance the data from the WEAI. She said, “I think the creators of the WEAI would argue the same too, although sometimes the qualitative data get lost.”
Gender research in agriculture, why does it even matter?
Dr. Castellanos vocalized that there is still a great deal of stigma around studying gender and what gender means. Paige considers there's a frequent misconception about what a gender scholar is and how they fit within larger agricultural research teams.
She expressed, “Gender inequalities influence every aspect of agriculture, production, research, advancements in technology, technology use, and if you don't consider them, you're going to miss out on a lot of critical information about food security or other aspects of agriculture.”
Walking with open ears is the first step to becoming a gender scholar.
Paige expressed that when you're doing research, the first component to really understand is not just the location but also the community and social norms that influence every aspect of life. She approaches her research the same way she did when she started her hotel management job, by listening, whether key informants or people within the community that have a lot of experience living and/or working there. However, when talking and listening about gender issues, Paige mentions that personal feelings, individual experiences, possibly resentments may rise to the surface, so it’s essential to be cognizant and sensitive of that. She reiterated that scholars should understand the potential implications these conversations may have within households’ dynamics. Therefore, it’s essential to anticipate and mitigate any backlash or impact that you as a researcher may have after you leave.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequities.
Dr. Castellanos recently worked several colleagues to solicit accounts of the impact of COVID on women and gender in the food system. On top of the higher incidence of domestic violence, food security and availability have been particular obstacles that Paige has observed through this project. She said, “I think it's going to be something that we're studying and trying to understand for a long time.” Moreover, one of the critical challenges that she has experienced is overcoming the pandemic's challenges and continuing to do the research they want to be doing. In a recent project working with peanut farmers in northern Ghana, funded by USAID’s Feed the Future Peanut Innovation Lab (University of Georgia), they have relied on in-country partners to do the data collection, which has their own challenges reaching communities. The most prominent theme of this past year for Paige is trying to overcome some of those challenges, whether it's the stories of the community members or through her own work.
Life outside academia
Besides the joy and happiness of spending time with her children, Dr. Paiges loves ice skating! She recently started taking her 8-year-old daughter to skate with her to spend some much-needed quality time. “My go-to, whenever I’m feeling anxious or stressed out, is to like close my eyes and pretend that I’m ice skating and then actually doing it calms me down.” Because of the pandemic, the ice-skating rink closed, but her family has been really into baking a lot. Many of us will definitely feel identified with that new-found hobby.
Thank you so much for sharing your story and great insights, Dr. Paige!
This interview was conducted, transcribed and written by Marlia Bosques Martínez.