Swiss Re faces $6.3 million claim over sexism, unfair dismissal

By Kirstin Ridley

LONDON (Reuters) – A former Swiss Re underwriter, who last year won a sex and maternity discrimination and unfair dismissal case, is seeking 5.1 million pounds ($6.3 million) in compensation and told a London court she wants to retrain as a Baptist pastor.

The lawsuit by Julia Sommer, 41, brought after a Swiss Re senior manager commented about her breasts, made references about sex and discriminated against her, swings the spotlight back on an industry struggling to shake off a reputation for sexism.

Sommer, back in court on Wednesday to seek compensation, became tearful when Swiss Re’s lawyer, Gavin Mansfield, asked her to explain why her worries about her mental health and the stigma of having sued the reinsurance giant would prevent her from ever returning to work in insurance or financial services.

“People know I brought a claim against Swiss Re and have been out of work because of depression and anxiety – and all of these things matter (in job interviews),” she told the Central London Employment Tribunal on Wednesday.

“I consider myself a strong person … But I can’t persevere anymore … this is where my losses come from. I can’t go in there and do that anymore,” Sommer said, visibly distressed.

Sommer, whose lawyer confirmed the size of her claim, told the court she wanted to study theology and become a pastor to “find purpose and meaning through spirituality”, to help others and make sense of her own experiences.

Swiss Re declined to comment.

Sommer joined Zurich-based Swiss Re in 2017 as a political risk underwriter in London but was made redundant in 2021, months after returning from maternity leave.

The tribunal ruled last year that the redundancy was “retrofitted” on to a pre-existing decision to dismiss her and that a senior manager had repeatedly humiliated her.

In the tribunal’s judgment last year, the judges had said that comments made at work drinks in 2017, when the senior manager told her: “If I had breasts like yours, I would be demanding too” and: “I bet you like to be on top in bed” were “a horrible attempt at a joke” and amounted to sex discrimination.

The judgment also said that comments made by the same manager during a career development meeting in 2019, when he told Sommer she had a dominant personality and asked her to take a more submissive role, amounted to direct sex discrimination.

The tribunal also ruled he harassed and discriminated against her by aggressively dismissing her feedback attempts, telling her to “shut up” on a global team call and denied her request to work from home when she had pregnancy-related ill-health to “send a message” he wanted her out.

Swiss Re declined to comment on Wednesday on whether the manager remains at the company. 

($1 = 0.8118 pounds)

(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley. Editing by Jane Merriman)