Sophie Harker featured

Inspirational Woman: Sophie Harker | Senior Aerospace Engineer, BAE Systems

Sophie Harker
Photo: Harry Parvin

Sophie visited the Kennedy Space Centre at age 16, this is where she fell in love with the idea of becoming an astronaut but didn’t know how to get there.

It was only when she met astronaut Dr Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, that she realised becoming an engineer was her way to get to space.

Sophie now works at BAE Systems and has worked on spaceplanes and hypersonic aircrafts which travel faster than five times the speed of sound. Sophie has also worked on determining the most efficient flight path for a spaceplane to fly into orbit, and has investigated to utilise the technology to fly faster than ever before.

Sophie is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit #BeTheDifference

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I was inspired into engineering by Dr Helen Sharman, who I met whilst studying for my Masters Degree in Mathematics at the University of Nottingham. She encouraged me to look at engineering as an option for me to live out my ultimate dream of becoming an astronaut. I completed an internship in Software Engineering at BAE Systems between my third and fourth years and then joined BAE Systems on the graduate scheme, completing four placements in various areas of engineering. For my final placement I was seconded to Reaction Engines and worked on spaceplane development and trajectory optimisation. This lead to my ‘exit’ role after the graduate scheme where I worked on performance aerodynamics for fast jets, hypersonic air vehicles and spaceplanes, and led company strategy investigations in the hypersonic and space domains.

Now, I am currently a Senior Aerospace Engineer working on developing technologies for future Flight Control Systems as part of Team Tempest. Team Tempest is a joint project between industry and the UK government to develop technologies that will become part of a future fast jet to be used by the military when some of their existing aircraft are retired. Flight Control Systems are a really integral part of that as they are essentially the central nervous system of the aircraft, brain included, and as such are crucial to enable flight and perform all the in air and on ground manoeuvres that are required.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I actually didn’t! This is something that I’ve long debated doing, but have often found myself going for opportunities that have arisen and being flexible enough to stray from the seemingly straight forward career path. I always have an end goal in sight, and view of what my next step would be, however my main focus is to be flexible with my career and follow what excites me and that I’m interested in.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

My biggest technical challenge was moving from mathematics into engineering, and having to learn about aerospace as it was all new to me when I joined BAE Systems. I have really got myself involved in it however and it was worth the extra research I needed to do. There have been other challenges along the way, particularly being a young woman in aerospace, however it hasn’t deterred me and I instead use the success I have had in my career to inspire those who would never have considered engineering or aerospace as they didn’t see themselves in it.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’ve had some amazing career highs over the last 6 years, and do not take any for granted. I’d say the most life changing achievement was receiving the IET’s Young woman Engineer of the Year award in 2018. My life after that was a whirlwind and I have been so fortunate to be involved in so many fantastic events and meeting incredible people, from inspirational engineers at the tops of the fields to young children across the country who have big dreams for their future.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I really believe that my passion for sharing what I do and what I’m working on has been a key contributor to any success I have had. I think it’s so important to not only share within industry in order to propel projects forward, but it’s also important to share with the public. Inspiring the general public is something close to my heart and as a by-product of doing this I’ve learnt how to communicate seemingly complex things to be understood by various audiences, which has been invaluable to my professional development.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Figure out how to explain what is so exciting about your technology/project and how to communicate that to different audiences. That messaging is key to showing that not only are you passionate about it, but also that you have the skill to bring it to investors and/or potential customers. It’s also critical when working with cross-disciplinary teams and ensuring everyone is working towards and is motivated by the same goal.

My other piece of advice is to say yes to opportunities even when you can’t see where they will lead – taking a chance can really put your career on an exponential trajectory.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I think the barriers are less conscious now, and more to do with unconscious biases that we all hold. To work through this, for me, it was a case of feeling brave enough to embrace who I am as a whole, with both my stereotypical feminine and masculine traits. From this, I use the strengths I have that others may not to leave a mark in the workplace and wider industry.

I also address any unconscious biases I have myself and make sure that I’m not projecting that onto others, particularly other women. I want to make sure that I am always supportive of other women in their careers and choices.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

I think unconscious bias training is really important for everyone, including women, and that there is a culture of calling out bias or inappropriate behaviour. I also think it’s important that not all cases are treated as disciplinary action and that instead provide education on why it was inappropriate and what to do/not to do in the future. We need to bring everyone along on the journey, for all biases that may prevent individuals from career progression.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would like the image of a stereotypical engineer/STEM professional to disappear completely. Although it is starting to improve, many young people and their influences (like their parents/guardians, teachers, etc) still hold the stereotypical view of men in oily overalls with a spanner, or mad male scientists. If I could replace that image in their minds with a beautifully diverse group of individuals who work on different things with different interests and passions… that would go a long way in helping increase the number of women in tech. It’s something the ‘This is Engineering’ campaign from the Royal Academy of Engineering is trying to do – show the varied people that work in STEM and change the public perception.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech

I would recommend joining and getting really involved in a professional institution, such as the RAEng, IET or RAeS. These institutions provide career support and opportunities to network with individuals in different and similar fields across the world, providing connections that could prove invaluable in your career.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here