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Sometimes institutions and society are structured in a way that prevents members of a certain group from equitable treatment as a whole. Frequently, the oppression of any particular member of said group may not always be visible at the level of the individual. Some forms of structural oppression exist as the result of laws or other highly visible public policies (Jim Crow laws in the United States are a good historical example). Other forms of structural oppression, such as those that exist due to economic or cultural forces, are more invidious

Institutionalized oppression definitions[]

The following definitions reflect some of concepts used to describe the process of institutionalized oppression:

Institutions are fairly stable social arrangements and practices through which collective actions are taken. Examples of institutions in the U.S. include the legal, educational, health care, social service, government, media and criminal justice systems.

Institutional Oppression is the systematic mistreatment of people within a social identity group, supported and enforced by the society and its institutions, solely based on the person’s membership in the social identity group.

Institutional Oppression occurs when established laws, customs, and practices systematically reflect and produce inequities based on one’s membership in targeted social identity groups. If oppressive consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs, or practices, the institution is oppressive whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have oppressive intentions.

Institutional Oppression creates a system of invisible barriers limiting people based on their membership in unfavored social identity groups. The barriers are only invisible to those “seemingly” unaffected by it.

The practice of institutionalized oppression is based on the belief in inherent superiority or inferiority. Institutionalized oppression is a matter of result regardless of intent.

Stereotypes are attitudes, beliefs, feelings and assumptions about a target group that are widespread AND socially sanctioned. Can be positive and negative, but all have negative effects. Stereotypes support the maintenance of institutionalized oppression by seemingly validating misinformation or beliefs.


Overt forms of oppression are open and observable, not secret or hidden. The target of overt oppression is very aware of the intention and action of the oppressive act, and of the oppressive person or group.

: an unfair feeling of dislike for a person or group because of race, sex, religion, etc.

: a feeling of like or dislike for someone or something especially when it is not reasonable or logical

Covert forms of oppression may be secret, hidden and not openly practiced, or so subtle that they are not readily obvious, even to the intended target. The person targeted with covert oppression may not even realize that an oppressive act has occurred until after the fact, nor be aware of who committed the act. Often, targets of covert forms of oppression may second guess themselves and their reactions to covert oppression.[1]

because they are difficult for us as individuals to detect.

An example of structural/institutional oppression[]

National labor statistics show that among full-time workers in the United States, women on average earn approximately 80% of what men earn [2]. When one closely examines the data and breaks it down, it becomes clear that the primary reason for this is not out-and-out, Mad-Men-style discrimination, where some rabid misogynist sitting in the top office with way too much alcohol in his system is saying things like "I'LL BE DAMNED IF I LET A WOMAN GET THIS JOB!" Rather, the disparity can be overwhelmingly explained by occupational segregation and what's referred to as the "motherhood penalty"[3][4]. And in fact, it's quite likely that a lot of what encourages women to self-segregate in their occupations is the disproportionate burden of motherhood (compared to fatherhood) they can predict to encounter if they decide to have children. (Yes, a little bit of direct wage discrimination still exists, but it's only causing about a 5% gap, and could easily be fixed by passing a federal law that protects employee's rights to wage disclosure. But I digress).

Some observers will then say, "oh, well, this is just a difference in pay that's the result of women's own choices. No discrimination going on here." Well, quite frankly, bullshit. While at the individual level it may look that way, we live in a culture where there is still a lot more social stigma against a man who goes on the "daddy track" than a woman who goes on the "mommy track." And a lot of husbands in this country will still make clear to their wives that they wouldn't feel like a "real man" if their wife kept working while they became the stay-at-home parent. The "choice" American women make in disproportionately high numbers to be stay-at-home parents isn't often even a real choice at all. (Small wonder then, that stay-at-home moms are more likely to be depressed than women who work). There is structural oppression against women in this country being maintained by our sexist culture. It's limiting women's ability to genuinely make their own choices as to how to live their lives, and that limitation is causing an earnings gap.


  1. Adapted from “Institutional Oppression,” Tools for Diversity, © TACS. Tri-County Domestic & Sexual Violence Intervention Network Anti-Oppression Training for Trainers Created by Carol Cheney, Jeannie LaFrance and Terrie Quinteros, 2006. 503.287.9628 ext. 2.

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