Doug Beattie had been having a great weekend. With around 100 days to go until the Assembly election, he was the only political leader in Northern Ireland who had a positive trust rating in a LucidTalk poll carried out for the Belfast Telegraph.
Then he got too excited and decided to share a joke, specifically targeting the wife of another politician. Nobody was laughing, though.
In the past year there have been myriad conversations — many of which stemmed from the most horrible and upsetting of news stories — about the behaviour of men towards women and how that should change.
While painful and, hopefully in the future, unnecessary, these discussions are providing an opportunity for many to learn from incidents in the past and providing a framework for how we can work towards a more equitable society for all.
So when something like this happens that reveals the casual ways men undermine and demean women seemingly without a second thought as to how their actions would make others feel, it’s shocking that someone in Doug’s position hasn’t been listening as carefully as he should or learned more about what’s not acceptable any more — including these gender-based jokes that, we’ve learned, can be the start of a sliding scale towards something more harmful — and if we’re honest, never was.
It’s common these days that political leaders are under pressure and often want to sign up women to their parties and with his seemingly forward-thinking attitude, Doug was one of the few who stood a chance of contributing to the tally of women at Stormont by adding them to the UUP’s ticket. But it’s a sneaking suspicion held by many women that when you’re not there, men make jokes at your expense — using sexism or misogyny to get a few laughs.
It’s part of what makes women think that certain groups or professions, including that of politician, will never be for them, a boys club where they’re just waiting to objectify you or talk how they want while your back is turned.
In a way it’s shocking the leader of the UUP didn’t realise the time for “jokes” like these — something you would read in a toxic chat on WhatsApp or muttered under the breath — has long since passed. Reading a tweet like this makes women feel bad and it’s a shame because it undoes some of Doug’s good work to strengthen female representation and make the UUP a forward-thinking party.
Instead, he’s going from trying to make politics appeal to women one day and making misogynistic jokes the next and “liking” other tweets that back up his initial joke, despite a “sincere apology”.
Doug Beattie doesn’t seem like a bad person and there’s no doubt he has good intentions, always coming across as genuine. But this incident proves he has a lot to learn if he wants to walk the walk and not just talk the talk as a strong political leader for both genders as is now required.
It’s hard to know how the UUP leader will be affected electorally by this — but some women may look differently at him now than they did just a few days ago.