The engineering skills gap is no secret, with Engineering UK reporting a shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates to fill core engineering roles.
Despite this, only 11% of the engineering workforce is female, and the number of newly qualified female engineers has remained static for almost 7 years. It’s never been more important to be both celebrating the success of females in engineering and encouraging the next generation to consider it as their career choice.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) recognise this in their prestigious Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award. The event took place in December and Sophie Harker was named as the 2018 event.
Sophie is an Aero Engineer at BAE Systems, working closely on the aircraft of the future. In the below interview we spoke with Sophie about her path into engineering, her work as a STEM ambassador and her advice for future and aspiring engineers.
Congratulations on winning the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award! How did it feel to win and be recognised for your achievements?
Thank you very much – it felt extremely surreal! I was so pleased to be one of the final six engineers, I didn’t consider the possibility I may have actually won. When my name was read out I didn’t even recognise it as I had the other finalists’ names in my head and so it took me a minute to realise it was me! In all honesty, it feels fantastic and I’m extremely proud and humbled that the IET judges saw me as their Young Woman Engineer of the Year.
You’re an Aerodynamics and Performance Engineer at BAE Systems – What does your role entail?
Essentially, I work out whether an aircraft is going to fly or not; then if it does fly, how far does it fly, how fast, how well, and what can we do to improve its flying ability. The aircraft I work on are all future concepts, ones that will be flying in the 2030s, 2040s and beyond. One of the best things about my job is the range of different and incredible air vehicle concepts I get to work on. From military fast jets to technologies that could help in the development of hypersonic planes travelling faster than 5 times the speed of sound or space planes that take off from a runway and fly all the way into orbit!
What was your path into engineering? Did you always want to be an engineer?
When I was younger I knew I was good at maths but that was about it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at all until I was 16 years old when I went to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and decided there and then that I wanted to be an astronaut (and still do!).
When I was 19 I had a fantastic opportunity to meet Dr Helen Sharman (the first Briton in space) at the Houses of Parliament. Dr Sharman explained to me that if I wanted to be an astronaut I should consider a career in engineering – so that’s exactly what I did! I was already at the University of Nottingham studying maths, so continued to gain my Masters Degree in the subject, focussing on the applied maths topics. Whilst at university I completed an internship at BAE Systems, and then when finishing my degree I joined them on their graduate scheme. Since starting with the company I’ve gone from strength to strength and continue to develop both my technical and professional skills.
As an ambassador for women and diversity in STEM, what more do you think needs to be done to encourage women and young people to consider engineering as a career?
I think the main issue that’s stopping women and young people from considering engineering is that the stereotype of an engineer being a man in oily overalls with a spanner is so ingrained in our society, particularly in the UK. Until I was 19 years old I genuinely thought an engineer was someone that came to fix your washing machine or install a satellite dish; it took meeting an astronaut for me to overcome that image and to find out that, actually, engineering is inventing and being creative with maths and science. As engineers, we get to leave a legacy. The more diverse role models in STEM we have in the public eye, like the ones the IET creates with the Young Woman Engineer of the Year awards, the more likely we are to change the perception and bring people into the varied and exciting careers that STEM entails – it’s all about sharing and communicating our engineering world with the outside world!
What would your advice be for aspiring engineers looking to break into the profession?
Engineering and other STEM careers are so wide-ranging and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to be part of it. There are so many different fields and industries as well as various routes into professional engineering – you only need to look at the Top 50 Women in Engineering list (created by WES and the Telegraph) to see that. There are aerospace engineers like myself, but also civil, electrical, biomedical and chemical engineers in industries like green energy, app development, banking and medicine.
There are those that have gone the traditional route through university studying engineering, or those like myself who have studied other STEM subjects and moved into engineering, as well as those who completed apprenticeships at various levels. Therefore my advice is to do your research and investigate what you think you’ll be most interested in and passionate about, and then look at what routes are most appealing to you. There is no right or wrong here – engineering is a career that opens many doors and closes none, so take your time and enjoy the journey!
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*Photo credit with thanks to The IET.