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Ember Kane-Lee

College: Brooklyn College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2014

Wrestling with Gender Inequality

From grades 8 through 12, Ember Kane-Lee wrestled as the first and, so far, only girl ever on the New Paltz High School team in upstate New York, earning a second-place statewide ranking for girls in her weight class.

By 2013, when she graduated from Brooklyn College with a B.A. in sociology, she held a black belt in Okinawan Isshin Ryu karate and had won a competitive $5,000 Rosen Fellowship, which supports out-of-classroom personal-development experiences for Brooklyn undergraduates. She used the grant to travel to Colorado to see the U.S. women’s wrestling team train for the 2012 Summer Olympics and to Michigan to see a college women’s wrestling tournament.

At each event, she interviewed athletes about their experiences wrestling alongside, training with and competing against men before they could join all-female teams. She presented the resulting research paper at several conferences, including the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston and The City University of New York Pipeline Conference at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.

Now a sociology doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (and a novice boxer), she will use her 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to deepen the work she started in Brooklyn. “I’d like to continue scrutinizing gender inequality as more women are entering into aggressive male-dominated sports,” she says.

Kane-Lee intends to move into ethnography as she probes the gender dynamics surrounding girls joining high school wrestling teams; girls make up only 2 percent of high school wrestlers nationwide. She will look at team dynamics to see how boys’ viewpoints and sense of masculinity change as a result of training alongside girls. She also will analyze the types of circumstances in which boys change their perceptions about female athletes as a result of having female teammates.

Wrestling, she says, teaches women to be assertive and to see the value of determination and not giving up. “But there can be negatives when women join male teams, ranging from unspoken bias to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and even rape.” Sometimes it’s from teammates, her research found, “but more often it’s from opponents who don’t want to face these women in tournaments.”

To do well, wrestlers, male or female, have “to make sacrifices in their social lives. Wrestlers are the first ones in the gym in the morning and often the last ones out at night. They spend hours a day training, lifting, competing against other people on the team, practicing.” During a match - three intense two-minute periods - “every second you’re thinking what will work best, not only acting from muscle memory. It’s like a chess game.”

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $132,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.