Article posted Thursday, July 29, 2010 8:06pm

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that so many issues related to the lives of women are silenced and shunned by society?

A: Having returned from my presentation and attendance at the Round Table Symposium on Women and Social Justice at Oxford University this past week, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the many issues that were raised. One of the recurrent themes that revealed a consistent pattern in American society (as well as many other cultures from around the world) was the exploitation, devaluation, and silencing of issues central to the lives of women.

The research/statistics are truly staggering, showing that the female sex is, unquestionably, the most oppressed social group on earth. Regardless of race, age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, educational background, or any other demographic – women suffer more abuse, discrimination, and social devaluation and exploitation than all other minority groups combined. These social injustices are enacted either explicitly (through violence, rape, murder, slave labor, sex-trade, and economic/political exclusion) or implicitly (through the institutionalized socialization of inferior roles and expectations). The fact that women are considered a “minority” is notable in that females are born at rates equivalent to males.

It’s estimated that well over 1,000,000 women are now “missing” from the global human population. In countries where abortion is an accepted method of birth control – female fetuses are terminated at significantly higher rates than males. In regions where breast milk is the sole source of nutrition – female infants are nursed less frequently than males – and at times – left to starvation in favor of fortifying male infants. Countless young women and girls go “missing” in many countries utilizing slave labor forces – only to be found in remote areas having been raped and/or murdered. From berkas to bound feet – patriarchal cultures institutionalize the silencing and disability of women.

With these extreme, yet common, examples aside, issues related to natural female existence in American society are also routinely silenced and shunned – specifically by men and by society in general. These “accepted” social mores have been labeled as “the conspiracy of silence” by experts and describe the ways in which normal female expression is muted, repressed and stigmatized.

Breastfeeding is considered “indecent exposure” in most public areas – although the value and necessity of nursing is wholly natural and indisputably healthiest for mother and child. However, women are expected to bare their breasts, provided the exposure services the sexual desires of men. Women are also socialized to “hide” the occurrence of their monthly menstrual cycles, leading to needless feelings of shame and embarrassment for yet another natural and necessary biological function.

In educational and organizational settings, women are routinely discouraged from achieving high-status, male dominated positions – as females are continually steered toward pursuing nursing vs. medical degrees or becoming legal/dental assistants vs. lawyers/dentists. And while women comprise approximately 50 percent of the work force and now outrank men in the attainment of college degrees, the highest status positions in education and industry are still disproportionately occupied by men.

Within the context of social relationships, the thoughts and feelings of women are routinely devalued, stigmatized, and silenced. When a woman “speaks her mind,” she is frequently labeled as pushy, domineering, bitchy, or a “nag.” Outspoken women and girls are repeatedly told they are “unlady-like,” and therefore, unattractive and undesirable. And when expressing genuine feelings, women are labeled as hysterical or moody.

Within their intimate relationships, the sincere thoughts and feelings of women are routinely repressed, oppressed, or molded into conformity with male standards and expectations. The fact that upwards of 50 percent of women claim to “fake” sexual satisfaction with their male partners is a testament to the extent to which women have learned to silence their own genuine feelings and needs in deference to the male ego. In writing this column, I too must avoid addressing this particular topic head on – as the “conspiracy of silence” permeates and regulates the boundaries of publication media as well.

So, what exactly is the problem here? The fact that the U.S. (like most countries in the world) embraces a patriarchal structure is too shallow an explanation. Is it really a “man’s world,” and if so – why is it a man’s world? Are the natural characteristics and inherent strengths of women really so threatening that they must be bound, shackled and subdued? Is the notion of justice and equality really so objectionable that we condone the oppression of half the human race?

Men and women represent the wings of the bird of humanity. As one is hindered – so is the bird’s ability to fly.