26 September 2023

Succession’s tragic take on women and leadership

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Spoilers! The below contains spoilers covering the final moment of the final episode of Succession, writes Angela Priestley*.

Siobhan Roy has privilege, power and enormous wealth.

The only daughter of a billionaire media mogul who’d rival Rupert Murdoch in the real world, she’s ambitious, smart (in comparison to those around her) and can put up an excellent appearance of having everything sorted.

She can talk progressive politics and play a liberal heart, but won’t let any of it get in the way of a good business deal, or let principles halt her own ambitions for power.

She can create new roles and avenues for presidents to accept foreign ownership of a media conglomerate, and happily talk up to a right-wing president-elect she’d previously described as terrifying for the state of the union.

But despite all this, she could never be the CEO or even the US CEO of the fictional media and entertainment conglomerate her father built, Waystar Royco.

And while she held the ultimate power on which way the deal would go, she could never take the ultimate prize.

Even in a three-way race against her less capable brothers with terrible corporate records, she couldn’t win.

Instead, in just part of the ultimate tragedy of these sad and pathetic siblings, Shiv is relegated to being the CEO’s wife.

Tom Wambsgans is anointed the ultimate successor, on account of his admission that his management style involves being a “pain sponge”: a yes man, a sycophant, a “dutiful cabinet minister” as some might say in Australian politics.

Shiv is double-crossed by the man she’d made a deal with to take the top position, GoJo CEO Lukas Matsson, who ultimately succeeds in buying Waystar Royco.

Despite this, Shiv still offers the deal her tiebreaking board vote, with the company finally sold out of the Roy family hands.

Was Shiv always doomed in her ambitions to the CEO role?

For four seasons of Succession we’ve been guessing if she could finally come up on top, and prior to this show’s finale, it looked like a very real possibility.

But corporate leadership of this scale was never in Shiv’s destiny.

Was it because she got pregnant, at the wrong time? On pitching herself for the US CEO role to Matsson, he responded with a hand to his belly and made a “pop” noise, as if her unborn child was the sole reason it wouldn’t work.

He is Swedish, a country with world-class paid parental leave with a culture that enables fathers to share the care.

He knows a CEO role is possible for a pregnant woman, even without Shiv having to explain that she’ll take 36 hours of maternity leave, and the “poor kid” will hardly ever see her.

Was it because Matson — as he directly told Shiv’s husband Tom — wanted to fuck her? Tom, ever desperate to achieve his power ambitions, responded that “we’re men”, as if the conversation they were having was OK, that he could take it.

He understood another man talking with him about wanting to fuck his wife in the same conversations as a job interview, and that same man claiming that “under the right circumstances” Shiv would want to fuck him too.

Was it because Shiv was not a “serious” person? In this world of Toms and Romans and Kendalls, she seemed far more stable, had better ideas, and could build a better range of relationships.

Her father saw it — in season two, “it’s always been you”, he said, before revealing his expectation that she would spend months and years in various positions, including offshore, before stepping anywhere close to his office.

Logan Roy never expected such things of Shiv’s brothers, when at various points he too told them they should and could lead.

So was it because she was a woman?

In this fictional world, at least with this segment or right-wing media and theme parks and entertainment, women are there to either sort things out — as is the ever-capable Gerri — or they are there to serve as daughters, mothers, wives or co-anchors of men.

As Shiv said at her father’s funeral, it was hard being Logan Roy’s daughter.

“Dad couldn’t fit a whole woman in his head,” she said.

Shiv Roy could have stuck it to Matson by continuing with the plan brothers and voting against the GoJo deal in the boardroom, as she’d promised her brothers she would do after the siblings agreed to anoint Kendall as King, instead of backing out at the last minute.

She could have become head of the news division, under Kendall’s CEO watch.

But she knew Ken didn’t deserve the CEO role.

She knew he wouldn’t be good at it.

And she just couldn’t let him win.

And in those final, desperate muments, Kendall too could have offered something back to Shiv as a final tactic for securing her vote and keeping the family business in their hands.

But he just couldn’t do that either.

The fictional world of Succession runs close to the real world in many ways, and in this case the numbers themselves highlight just how rare it could ever be for a woman to take such a role.

There are just 53 women leading Fortune 500 companies as CEO, making up just over 10 per cent of such positions.

There are similar numbers in Australia also on the ASX 200.

The reality for women CEOs just doesn’t match up to the fictional world.

And while Waystar Royco was troubled, it was likely not in enough trouble for giving a woman a glass cliff to climb.

In words similar to those from a former Australian prime minister who faced a real-life, albeit very different, succession battle of her own, gender doesn’t explain everything in the final outcomes of Succession, but it does explain some things.

*Angela Priestley is the Founding Editor of Women’s Agenda, and now heads up the publication’s parent company Agenda Media

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com

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