In 1986 a complaint brought by Jean Porcelli finally resulted in the ‘first definitive ruling by a British court’ that sexual harassment constituted discrimination within the terms of the SDA.

Employed as a school lab technician by Strathclyde Regional Council, Porcelli had faced a ‘policy of vindictive unpleasantness’ from her two male colleagues ‘with the deliberate purpose of making her apply for a transfer to another school’. Their behaviour had included lewd insults and comparisons to nude photographs on page three of the Daily Record. Porcelli applied to transfer to another school, effectively hounded out of her job.

The judgment reached by three judges in the High Court of Session in 1986 was the final one in a very protracted series of industrial tribunal hearings and appeals that had taken two years. Lords Emslie, Grieve and Brand found that the behaviour used was ‘a particular kind of weapon’ or ‘sexual sword’ that was ‘based upon the sex of the victim’ and ‘would not have been used against an equally disliked man.’ ([1986] IRLR 134)

Looking back, some twenty years later, Jean Porcelli spoke to news reporters of the very considerable toll the case had placed on her health, well-being, personal life and professional career. With no response from her trade union when the problem emerged, she had represented herself when the case first came to court, taking out a loan to cover the costs of employing a solicitor. When the initial finding went against her – that she had experienced detrimental treatment but that it was not sex discrimination – she appealed, and was delighted when the tribunal’s original decision was overturned. But Strathclyde Regional Council decided to take the case to the High Court. Unable to afford the substantial costs, she was advised to approach the EOC, who took on her case and provided legal assistance. In finally winning her case, Porcelli had taken on the biggest employer in Scotland. She told the Daily Mirror (6 June 2006):


‘I am very glad I took my case and very proud of what we achieved. David took on Goliath – and David won.’


Jean Porcelli’s story was featured in the BBC series ‘Women Who Changed Modern Scotland’, first broadcast in February 2023: