Meet Ericsson’s Inventor of the Year: Yufei Blankenship
In April 2020, I received a call from the Chairperson of the jury, who informed me that I was one of three winners who had won Ericsson’s ‘Inventor of the Year’ award. I was happy for the milestone in my engineering career. Then I became aware that I’m only the third woman engineer to win this award in in its 25 year history. With three winners each year, the ratio of female to male winners is 1:25 to date. I was surprised by this statistic, since I know that Ericsson is well established on diversity and gender equality, and there are numerous fantastic policies that I wish my younger self could have enjoyed. At the country level, according to the 2020 USPTO report, the “Women Inventor Rate”– the share of US female inventors receiving patents – increased from 12.1 percent in 2016 to 12.8 percent in 2019; still far from parity. Apparently, the odds are still stacked against women in the science and engineering field, even in the modern era we live in today, and even with a very supportive company like Ericsson.
Why am I among the lucky few to join the prestigious group of inventors who have been honored by Ericsson? My conclusion is that I’ve been allowed to pursue an engineering career for a very long time, and to learn from many role models in this long journey.
Breaking firmly held traditions
While society and family often unconsciously cast different expectations to girls and boys from infancy, I wasn’t put under such influence. When I was born, my father came back from the delivery room and cried to my grandmother that it was a girl. Being the eldest son of a very traditional Chinese family, my father understandably wished to have a son to carry on the family name. Grandmother comforted him, “Don’t be foolish. Girls are just as good as boys.” In the end, my father was blessed with two girls, and he raised his daughters with the same expectations as sons.
As a child growing up, my grandmother told me her stories and became my lifelong hero. She was born in 1925 in war-torn rural China, and never had a chance to go to school. The only opportunity of schooling was given to the boy of the family, her brother. Like many girls her age, she was illiterate her whole life. She suffered through World War II as a teenager, lost two infant children to hunger and disease, was widowed at thirty-five, and raised five young children by herself in a rural village in China. Since my pre-school age, my grandmother used her own experience to teach me how much I should appreciate the new epoch of peace and abundance, and how good it was that girls are now given equal opportunity to attend school just as boys. My parents were mechanical and electrical engineers, and I was exposed to simple math and science concepts at a young age. It was natural then, that I continued in the science and engineering field.
Throughout the student years, I didn’t think there was anything special about girls pursuing studies in science and engineering. I’ve met many very smart and strong girls, who can measure up to any boy. On the other hand, the higher the education program I went, the fewer girls there were. At the doctorate graduation of the electric engineering program, it became very clear that I was in a minority. Gradually, I learned to work in an environment largely populated by male peers.
After graduation, I had no problem working as a female engineer in a large company. My male colleagues were very gentlemanly, and everybody was treated as intellectual equals. I’ve met successful female professors and technical leaders, which gave me proof that female engineers can do the same job as male engineers.
The challenges of becoming a working mother and caregiver
My mindset shifted once motherhood started. My own experience in the child-bearing years, as well as my observation of other young mothers’ struggles, showed me vividly why women are in fact challenged, and could easily fall off the treadmill. During my first pregnancy, I was diagnosed with ITP, which means the platelets count in my blood was mysteriously and dangerously low. Doctors warned that I could bleed to death, and they decided to put me through stages of experimental chemotherapy. Another female engineer had gestational diabetes during pregnancy, and was seen carrying an insulin pump at work for months. Yet another female engineer went through years of infertility treatment, and the heartbroken experience ended with a dangerous pregnancy in the fallopian tube, which sent her to emergency surgery room. These medical problems came with motherhood and can hit any woman. I remember the private tears shed with my female colleagues when we went through these struggles, but these problems were not appropriate to share with male colleagues.
Beyond the special difficulties each woman struggles with, the mundane everyday challenges are an even bigger factor as to why women engineers might drop out of an engineering career path. Society expects mothers to take up more childcare responsibilities, and women engineers often willingly take up the caregiver role, the same as any other woman. For example, one woman engineer friend of mine left her job because her son was diagnosed with autism and needed more care. Another left because of the double pressure of caring for aging grandparents and a young child.
The challenge with a career in science and engineering is that the progress in the field is fast and furious. The knowledge quickly becomes outdated if it’s not continuously refreshed. If a woman leaves the field for a few years, it is very difficult to return to the same job. Several times in my career, I also pondered the options, when I was hanging by a cliff juggling medical problems, baby care, and the demands of an engineer’s job. Every time, support from family and friends gave me enough strength to stay on just a little longer.
Compared to men, circumstances give fewer women the chance to stay on the engineering job long enough to be eligible for an award that requires years of accumulation of credits. I’m among the group of women who chose science and engineering as a career and decided to stay on through thick and thin. By staying in the game, I enjoyed the same experience as any other colleague. I’ve been given opportunities to learn from mentors and role models over the years, and who showed me that an average person like me can formulate ideas and get a patent issued.
Widening the path to supporting women and girls in STEM
I’ve worked on wireless standardization for close to twenty years now, with the majority of the time spent on 3GPP 4G and 5G physical layer standardization. This is a very competitive international arena, and about 15-20 percent of participants are female engineers. When my children were small, I worked in the back office. Since joining Ericsson, and with my children in their teens, I started to join the 3GPP standards meetings as an Ericsson delegate. To me, 4G/5G standardization is an immense, worldwide research project with immediate real-life applications.
Research and invention in this area are very rewarding because often the solutions are standardized, implemented by both network and device companies, and put in tangible applications within a couple of years. It’s encouraging to know that thousands of engineers like me, who work together can make a difference globally.
If an ordinary woman like me can make it with an engineering career, all girls can achieve the same or more! To keep the door open, girls shouldn’t be told they are naturally bad at math; rather they can pursue whatever career they like. Young women scientists and engineers need to be given a safety net to stay in the field if and when they decide to have children. With that, there’s a good chance that gender parity in patenting can be achieved before the current estimate of 2070.
Get to know the people behind the technology. Here’s how we’re recognizing inventors.
Learn more about Ericsson’s patents and licensing.
Here’s how we’re involved in STEM education for girls.
Read our blog post, How lockdowns can open doors for women in tech.
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