Series 7 of American law drama series Suits is currently airing on Netflix. I recommend watching it. (Power through the less interesting couple of middle series; the first few and last 2 are worth it.) Spoilers ahead!
Why? The corporate buzz, the office politics, the loyalties, the plays for power, the deals cut, the secrets leveraged, the main characters’ indefatigable ‘There is no way we are losing this case‘. If you want to learn how to have a can-do attitude and 100% self-belief, this is the place to go.
It’s cool in other ways too. The managing partner, Jessica, is a black woman. She kicks butt. There are black partners and CEOs. (I feel like we don’t see this as much on UK TV.) They also kick butt. And there are plenty of other ‘strong women’ characters, if you’ll excuse that cringe phrase.
In the first few seasons, you might think that the women are strong, but the men are stronger. Donna is the best legal secretary in town, frighteningly intuitive and competent. She stops her boss, Harvey, from making terrible decisions – sometimes legal decisions, other times decisions she knows will affect his wellbeing and that of the business, like forgiving fellow partner Louis after yet another argument. She knows everyone (and is universally liked). She works hard. She anticipates business & emotional needs. And yet … she’s the secretary. Harvey, whose wholesale reliance on her doesn’t stop him from asserting his authority by yelling at her, is New York’s ‘top closer’ and arguably number 2 in the firm. So when it gets romantic, you do want them to work out, but there’s a weird manager-subordinate power dynamic that makes it a little uncomfortable (although this is countered by Jessica’s relationship with her subordinate Jeff…).
And then there’s Rachel (aka Meghan Markle aka Prince Harry’s gf), the paralegal who can’t get into Harvard Law School because she freaks out over exams. Despite this, she’s doing alright career-wise (has her own office) until Mike shows up. He doesn’t have a law degree either, but he waltzes in and nabs a spot as Harvey’s protégé. He represents the rule-breaking genius, she represents stymied ambition. Cue another unequal romance!
But in series 7 things start to change.
Donna is, in her own words, awesome. But she’s stuck. Although Harvey relies on her tremendously, she has no redress if he goes against her advice, because he has more power. She can’t get any more power in the firm because she is not a lawyer. She can’t get any more power anywhere else because Harvey has a breakdown when she leaves the firm for a while (emotional blackmail?!). Like Rachel, she is stymied, stuck in her place, and it’s sad to see.
But then …
She asks for a seat at the table.
She asks for her contribution to be recognised.
She asks to be made senior partner.
To contextualise, Harvey’s appointment to this career high sets off the feud with Louis right at the start of series 1. This is a big deal.
It was so right. You don’t actually need to be a lawyer to be a senior partner. With a senior title, a pay rise, decision-making power and voting rights, it now looks to the world as though Donna is as indispensable to the firm’s success as she actually is.
So if you want a primer on how to be a boss (as in, as a woman), Suits season 7 is for you.
This was all pretty timely in the context of the recent furore over the gender pay gap at the BBC. Sir Philip Hampton, co-chair of a review into women on boards, said that in all his time exec’ing/chairing various large companies, no woman had ever asked him for a pay rise. He was then criticised for being out-of-touch, for implying that the problem is created by women, when other factors might be at work: perhaps discouragement from even bothering when women are much less likely to get what they ask for anyway!
So it’s clear that learning to get your contribution recognised is only part of the puzzle of making things better for women at work. But you know me, confidence and self-belief are my hobby-horses. The rest of the puzzle (other people’s implicit bias, lack of pay transparency…) may feel way beyond your control, but this is one thing you can action now.
Be Donna & be awesome.