David Cameron is under fire for giving a peerage to Joanna Shields, a former Facebook and Google executive under whose tenure ferociously aggressive tax planning was the order of the day. Under Shields’s direction, both technology companies sidestepped hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of tax. But what you probably don’t know is how little other people in the technology industry think of her.
Shields’s appointment would be less damaging if anyone in the technology industry could point to an accomplishment of which she could be proud. But the most significant line item on her CV is presiding over tax planning. It’s unpatriotic, to put it mildly, and it makes her an odd choice for the House of Lords.
Women in Britain’s tech industry, in particular, don’t have very good things to say. Among other things, they ask how much clout Shields actually had in her roles at Facebook and Google? At least one member of Facebook’s board, Reed Hastings, had never heard of her until after she had left the company.
When rumours were circulating about Shields’ elevation to the Lords, one prominent female personality in the London tech scene suggested to me that she was “an over-promoted woman” whose undeserved worship made it harder for other women. She went as far as to say: “From what I’ve observed first-hand, I am embarrassed for her and to be a ‘woman in tech’ as she is so often categorised.
“I think she’s laughable,” my source continued. “Try as I might [to find out], no one can tell me if she’s properly good at anything, or even smart.”
Another, similarly senior, woman said: “She’s the embodiment of the ‘style over substance’ problem the tech industry has when it comes to women. She’s our [Yahoo CEO] Marissa Mayer. She shows up in nice shoes and an expensive haircut but no one can tell me what she’s done.”
Then, of course, there are those infamous, unsolicited Tech City marketing emails that purport to come from Shields and from which frustrated Tech City CEOs cannot unsubscribe – emails which, together with her grand manner and hands-off approach to running the the Tech City UK quango, earned her the nickname Spam Queen.
It is difficult to discover what Shields was actually responsible for delivering at either Facebook or Google. No significant product launches or commercial innovations emerged from her European fiefdoms. “I find it impossible to believe she had any role in anything substantive,” goes another comment from a person who has seen Shields in action regularly over the past few years.
Some say these criticisms are unfair. After all, Facebook and Google don’t make the law, and they are entitled to reduce their exposure to tax as far as the law permits. Besides, as one serial entrepreneur put it to me: “I would rather have a ruthless executioner in Parliament than a hypocrite apparatchik.”
That entrepreneur was a man, and, oddly enough, men are more enthusiastic about Shields’s achievements and her place in the House of Lords than women. She’s tech savvy, they say, she’s worked for a living and she made her own fortune (“as opposed to having a landowner father or shagging a union boss,” as one Tech City boss puts it).
Can Shields be all that much worse than those slumbering octogenarians in the Upper Chamber at discussing business and tech policy? And, hey, she fired Ben Southworth. That’s got to be worth something. The email stuff, they say, is trivial.
What matters is that the Lords should acquire businesspeople who are alive to realities of digital commerce. That can only be a good thing, whatever the minor quirks or inadequacies of the individuals – such as Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, founder of Lastminute.com, who has attracted ridicule for some of her cutesy, faux-modest statements about Parliament.
But there is more than a whiff of tokenism about Shields’ appointment – something that does not appear to be the case for Apprentice star and businesswoman Karren Brady, who was elevated at the same time. If the Prime Minister had been serious about getting expertise into Parliament, he could have embraced prolific angel investor Sherry Coutu. She is in a different league to Shields.
It’s astonishing that the Tories aren’t better at identifying heavyweights and continually succumb to the entreaties of flatterers, careerists and token appointments whose achievements outside of committees are questionable at best. Because while the appearance of progress, rather than progress itself, may fly in politics, the business world demands a bit more substance – more substance than Joanna Shields, anyway.