Is being a woman in business still a liability? As Succession’s Logan Roy decides which of his four offspring might inherit his media empire throne, on paper his smart and hard-working daughter Shiv seems like the most capable contender. But Shiv feels she’s been treated differently for being a woman – and she’s right. Succession does a great job of dealing with not just how the “woman” dynamics realistically play out around Shiv, but also how they’ve shaped her psychologically.
Is being a woman in business still a liability?
As Succession’s Logan Roy decides which of his four offspring might inherit his media empire throne, on paper his smart and hard-working daughter Shiv seems like the most capable contender. But Shiv feels she’s been treated differently for being a woman – and she’s right. The people in her world are open about just how much her gender is seen as a downside. She’s trotted out when having a female executive is useful for a crisis or a deal and then, once that passes, again sidelined, overlooked, mocked, or held to a higher standard than her brothers.
Logan Roy: I always thought you were the smartest.
Shiv Roy: Oh so that’s why you tried roman and Kendall first. - Succession
But Succession does a great job of dealing with not just how the “woman” dynamics realistically play out around Shiv, but also how they’ve shaped her psychologically. Due to the bias around her, Shiv gets less training from a young age – so at first she isn’t as ready to manage as her brothers. There’s a vicious cycle at play, where she overreacts and overcompensates, copying the toxic behavior her dad’s modeled for the company. As a result, Shiv has been molded into an arrogant–yet-insecure Girlboss who not only doesn’t help other women but often weaponizes feminism in service of her family. Here’s our take on how Succession uses Shiv to accurately illustrate how being marginalized as a woman or member of another outsider group can work against you, wear you down and very much mess you up.
Shiv Roy shows how, contrary to how much of today’s rhetoric, being a woman near the top of many work cultures is still an obstacle – but there are a lot of complicated reasons why.
Don’t get us wrong: as an individual, Shiv has plenty of flaws and isn’t that likable. Rhea is right when she says:
Rhea Jarrell: Shiv thinks she’s smarter than she is. - Succession
Having grown up rich with everything handed to her but noticed she’s at least smarter than her brothers, Shiv has developed an epic level of arrogance. She’s impatient for rewards without working for them, thinks she knows things before developing expertise, and displays a dangerous combination of entitlement and inexperience. Yet a lot of the problem is also Shiv’s reacting to and compounding her disadvantage. One lesson Shiv internalizes is that her achievements don’t count. In Season 3 we see her pull off a huge win that saves the family from losing the company, but her dad again denies her the credit. Then when Roman brings in the fascist presidential candidate Jeryd Menken, Logan lavishes praise on his son. And there’s a vicious cycle at play for Shiv: the more she feels she has to prove herself and doesn’t get validation, the more she feels defensive, desperate to get recognition rather than open to receiving the training and experience she actually needs.
Shiv Roy: Roman’s COO? You Have A Toddler With A Hard-on For Chief Operating Officer, And I’m Going Through a Management Training Program? - Succession
Shiv then gets in her way in numerous work interactions by overcompensating. Like many ambitious female precursors – going back to Lady Macbeth’s doomed quest to unsex herself – she feels she has to act more like a tough guy with a “big dick” energy than even the boys do. But this act doesn’t get her respect from the men around her, who generally don’t like the level of brash assertiveness from a female executive that they tolerate in a male one.
Logan Roy: Karl’s not happy with your level of input.
Shiv Roy: Oh. OK. Well, fuck him, right?
Logan Roy: I don’t need another toothache. - Succession
Logan tends to keep Shiv more behind the scenes than her brothers. And then, even when her father does put her in formal positions of power (like when he privately chooses her as his heir or installs her as president), it’s not long before he undermines that by freezing her out, having secret interactions with her brothers about major business, not backing her up, or letting her know she’s on thin ice if she ever makes an error.
Shiv Roy: Well, you OKed me to go in there and kick some ass, and I barely…
Logan Roy: I gave you a destination. I can’t walk you there, OK? - Succession
This situation, repeated over and over, has made Shiv both resentful and deeply insecure. Initially even Shiv herself doesn’t really think becoming the CEO is a possibility, so she looks to her husband Tom to rise in the company.
Like her siblings, she’s been falsely empowered by her wealth to view herself baselessly as above others, but because of her gender, she’s been shamed by her father into a state where she views herself as below. As therapist Tammy Nelson told the Cut, Shiv’s performance of confidence is “based on sort of the internal hill of sand because she’s not confident about herself as a woman and as a worker. She looks to her father to feel confident.”
And when she does get moments to lead, she sometimes chokes, loses control and makes a big gaffe, or fails to summon the confidence to meet challenges decisively.
Logan Roy: It’s the sort of tough choice people need to be able to make. People who would be very senior people.
Shiv Roy: I can’t choose Dad. - Succession
So if we look deeper, we can see how much Shiv and her flaws have shaped and exacerbated by her culture’s hostility to her being a woman. In a work context, she’s expected, at various points, to compensate for being a woman, act like she’s not, use it, and sell her gender out in order to get ahead in this world. She’s put at the forefront whenever there’s a sensitive crisis involving women or progressive issues – culminating in her even talking a sexual abuse victim out of testifying against her family. And of course, those favors where she has to disown her womanness aren’t even remembered. So in order to prove to her family that her being a woman isn’t an issue, she’s not even allowed to truly “be” one.
From childhood, Shiv felt the main female model in her life – her cruel Mother – was grotesque. When her mother isn’t physically absent, she’s emotionally violent to Shiv. Shiv has inherited some of this, even while trying to reject her mother and more consciously modeling herself on her narcissistic, bullying father. The toxic male behavior she’s learned to ape from her dad and the company is taken to an extreme in her most intimate personal relationship. She becomes a bully in her relationship with her husband Tom, making him into her punching bag – just as everyone in the Roy media empire falls somewhere on the abusive hierarchy, receiving pain from the higher-ups and passing it down. And because of the way Shiv has mistreated Tom and based their relationship on inequality, he eventually feels justified betraying her to seize his own power.
Shiv Roy: That’s why you love me. Even though I don’t love you… - Succession
So overall, Shiv’s toxicity is a realistic portrayal of the fact that when people are excluded due to gender, race or other factors, this doesn’t necessarily prove the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Instead adversity can provoke unhealthy coping habits that aren’t beneficial in the long run.
Nate Sofrelli: Deep down she’s status and money obsessed like you. - Succession
Shiv is an extreme version of the self-serving “Girlboss” type who trades on her gender when it helps her, but happily screws over other women for personal profit. But a trademark of the Girlboss is secret hypocrisy – and Shiv is pretty open about her cynical self-centeredness. One of the conflicts in Shiv’s life is trying to decide whether to not be a terrible person, or just double down and embrace it. When the series begins, she’s working for progressive, Bernie Sanders-esque presidential candidate Gil Eavis, and she talks like she (maybe) wants to do something good for the world, as long as there’s enough in it for her. Yet her pretenses of having morals fall away when she gets a shot at running her father’s company.
Shiv’s conflict between her two sides plays out in the first season through her affair with Nate, who describes himself as an “exciting bastard” in comparison to her “nice” fiance Tom. These two men represent the two disjointed sides of Shiv– on the one hand is her arrogance: she views herself as the exciting bastard: someone who’s mean yet better than everyone else. But on the other hand is her insecurity: she likes that Tom feels like a safe partner who will worship and never leave her, because she has a buried sense of inferiority. Shiv flip flops between these selves: she frequently laments that she’s not a nice or good person but mostly comforts herself she’s at least marginally more ethical than the rest of her family while not really behaving differently from them.
Kendall Roy: You tell yourself that you’re a good person, but you’re not a good person. - Succession
In the end, neither of Shiv’s opposing self-images is really true. Her affair with Nate doesn’t end up being that exciting, and in the end, her “nice” husband Tom turns out to be not as nice or safe as she thought after he sells her out in Season 3. Her conception of herself as an ultra-talented bastard is likewise proven false. She makes a fair number of mistakes when actually given a shot in the business, and interestingly, in Season 3, she surprises herself when she draws a line at helping a fascist presidential candidate– so it turns out she kind of does have a few principles after all.
More centrally, in her reconciliation with her brothers in the Season 3 finale, we also see the beginnings of a desire to openly communicate emotions in a positive sense. This is something Shiv is historically terrible at. Her wedding speech is a cringey showcase of how hard it is for her to actually show emotion, and she chooses her wedding night to tell her husband she wants an open relationship. When she discusses having children with him, she’s not only terribly unromantic about it but also oddly jumps to discussing divorce and comas. And she repeatedly tells Tom she doesn’t love him, but in ways that make us wonder if she almost does? (or would if she could love anyone that way)?
So it’s a big step in the Season Finale when she awkwardly tries to participate in unsarcastically being there for the suffering Kendall and an even bigger one when she suggests the siblings start saying the tough things out loud to each other.
Shiv Roy: You know dad is never gonna choose you. I’m sorry but maybe it’s time we say these things to each other… - Succession
As the siblings try for the first time to truly band together into Season 4, not creating a binary between niceness and ambition could be Shiv’s only chance to transcend her self-destructive pattern of being both hyper-arrogant and hyper-insecure. Her road to becoming a more mature, and actually more successful, adult may be tapping into that “nice” side of her – but not as a compromise or a settling, the way she’s always seen it. She just needs to have some equal human relationships, which can be both loving and honest.
Shiv has to learn not to base her self-esteem on the approval of her father, the ultimate patriarchal figure who will never be able to see her separate from the “minus” of her being a woman. She can’t help how her world sees her gender, but she can potentially learn to stop making the woman thing become an extra problem to herself.
Silman, Anna. “What Advice Would a Sex Therapist Give Succession’s Roman Roy?” The Cut, 9 Sept. 2019, https://www.thecut.com/2019/09/what-advice-would-a-sex-therapist-give-roman-on-succession