Anne Miller is one of the world’s most successful female inventors having created everything from the female condom to macho power tools. The author of How to get your ideas adopted, (and change the world), speaks to Karen Wilson, ahead of her fascinating talk this afternoon during National Science Week.
IN 1975, an 18-year-old girl called Anne Miller from a small Northamptonshire village nervously left her rented bedsit in Heaton to start a seven-month work placement at CA Parsons on Shields Road.
As first days go, it was certainly a case of “in at the deep end”.
“I walked in past these enormous turbo generators and I was the only girl among 3,000 men,” she remembers. “The men were a bit puzzled and this weird rumour started that I was Charlie Parson’s granddaughter!
“At that time there was a total ban (or so I was told) on having women in the foundry so I wasn’t allowed to go on the standard training programme which involved rotating round all sort of interesting departments.
“They were so twitchy about letting a woman onto the shop floor that I was put in a staff department called “Machine Dynamics” where made sure the machines didn’t vibrate too much.”
However, Anne, now 52, says she learnt a lot (as well as how to drink two pints of Newcastle Brown in a lunchtime!).
“Starting at Parsons was my first experience of how sometimes you need to be smart to overcome resistance to your ideas,” she says. “I had the idea that I wanted to be an engineer, but I don’t think HR really believed me!”
When they offered her a boring sounding job in “mathematical services” she asked if she could spend half her time there and half in a design department – opting for the design department first of course.
Anne also learnt a lot about how to run a business.
“I noticed that the level of experience and expertise of the fitters was largely ignored due to the over inflated egos of the young graduate engineers,” she explained.
As her career took off, Anne vowed not to make the same mistake herself.
She was inspired by people like Ricardo Semler, who took over his father’s pump factory in Brazil in the early 1980s and transformed it into one of Latin America’s fastest-growing companies.
“His key principle was to trust and empower his workers,” she says. “He started gently, allowing the machine operators to choose the colour of their overalls, but within a few years, staff were electing their managers and choosing their own salaries! Cleverly, the catch was that salaries were also public, so people were embarrassed to be greedy.”
After gaining her MA in Engineering – and working at Wilkinson Sword, Cramlington during a gap year – Anne spent the next 20 years leading teams developing innovative products for the world’s leading companies.
As a result, she now has 39 patents under her belt.
One of these is the Femidom (or female condom). “People laugh at its size and so did we while we were developing it,” says Anne. “But it’s playing an important role in helping women in developing countries protect themselves against AIDs and have the family sizes they want.
“In the UK people didn’t like it much, because they saw it as a weird contraceptive, but I was thrilled to read recently that in India the prostitutes actually charge more for using it because it’s seen as a sex toy!”
Some of her other inventions have included a painless device for taking blood samples aimed at people with Diabetes and a gourmet toaster.
These days, however, Anne has moved away from inventing towards consultancy and training through her company The Creativity Partnership, which she set up in 2000.
She has advised companies such as Rolls Royce and Proctor & Gamble in Newcastle where she encouraged the senior management team to spend a day in the shoes of junior lab scientists.
“They realised how much time was spent re-stocking cupboards and how reasonable the requests for extra help had been,” she says. Anne’s experience has informed her new book, which offers lots of practical advice on getting your ideas and inventions heard.
It deals with resistance to change, such as Kodak failing to notice the rise of digital photography until nearly too late, and the psychology behind getting ideas accepted.
For instance hotels often have a sign saying ‘most guests prefer to re-use the towels’ which makes others conform to the norm. With climate change, Anne says lecturing and bullying don’t work.
“It’s much easier to get your ideas adopted if you talk about things people are already interested in,” she says. “For example, if someone’s a keen cook, start a discussion about the health and taste advantages of eating more local, organic fruit and veg. If they like driving high status cars, turn the discussion towards the amazing performance of the Tesla electric sports car.”
Interestingly, Anne says times of crisis can be good for people with ideas. “People stop saying “that will never work” when the status quo clearly isn’t working either,” she explains.
“It can also generate a hunger for new ideas, which is very helpful if you can position your idea as part of the solution.” While things have changed a great deal for women in workplace since Anne was at AC Parsons, the number of women in science and engineering is still low.
She explains: “When I was at Cambridge, my engineering course was 10% women. Now it’s 25%. It’s improved but not that much.
“Talking about the social applications will help to excite women about science. We need to get the message across that it’s not just sitting in a dark box doing maths.”
Being female hasn’t really hindered her career either, although as a young engineer suppliers would often assume she was “just” a secretary and patronize her.
“Once I’d established my credentials, being female may even have been an advantage,” she admits. “Being unusual meant I was more memorable, and as a woman it was easier to avoid getting sucked into the competitive games that men sometimes play, and which can seriously damage their ideas’ chances.”
Anne is so full of enthusiasm that she makes anything seem possible. And she advises would-be inventors to keep plugging way, take advice and be flexible. “Ideas don’t arrive fully formed in a single flash,” she says. “Mozart liked to pretend ideas came to him in finished form but if you look at his manuscripts they are full of corrections!”
:: ANNE Miller will be giving a lecture at Clement Stephenson Lecture Theatre in the Agriculture Building, Newcastle University today from 3.30pm-4.30pm.
Her book How to Get Your Ideas Adopted (and change the world) is published by Marshall Cavendish. For more information visit www.annemiller.info