Tech + Health

07.14.14

Yahoo’s Accused Sexual Harasser Asked Women to Wear More Skirts at Work

She promoted women in Silicon Valley. Then she allegedly coerced a female employee into having sex with her.

No one has ever accused the tech industry of being female-friendly.

Disproportionately, tech companies are run by men, which could help to explain why they sometimes find themselves tangled in controversies for offenses like objectifying ad campaigns, offensive remarks about the female anatomy, and, in an extreme case, a CEO fired for allegedly getting caught on video kicking and hitting his girlfriend 117 times.

But the women of Silicon Valley are sometimes guilty of predatory behavior, too--that is, at least, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by Yahoo employee Nan Shi against the company and a high-level executive there, Maria Zhang.

An executive, it should be noted, who has a record of promoting women in the tech workplace.

Zhang is an industry veteran who did stints at Microsoft and Zillow before joining Yahoo when it acquired her app, Propeld (formerly “Alike”) in 2013. Shi worked for Zhang at Propeld, and joined her at Yahoo upon the acquisition.

According to the complaint, Zhang “instructed” Shi to move into a temporary Yahoo housing unit in Sunnyvale. It was there that the harassment is alleged to have begun.

Shi claims that Zhang coerced her “to have oral and digital sex” against her will, advising that if she submitted to her advances, “she would have a bright future at Yahoo.” If she did not submit to her advances, however, Zhang warned “she could take away everything from her including her job, stocks, and future if she did not do what she wanted.”

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Shi described one unwelcome encounter with Zhang.

“I was in a deep sleep one morning, sleeping on the sofa because she had taken my bed, when she came in without clothes on, crawled into my blanket, and woke me up, hugging me, kissing my face and neck,” Shi said. “I woke up and got scared; I was shocked. I said, what are you doing? She said she’d liked me a long time, but I didn’t feel the same toward her. I said come on, we’re friends; I love you as a person, but not as a lover.”

It should, perhaps, be noted that although the lawsuit is charging sexual harassment, Shi’s accusation sounds a lot like what would be ordinarily categorized as sexual assault—particularly if the alleged assailant were male. An attorney for Shi declined a request for comment.

Making rejecting Zhang all the more tricky for Shi, according to the complaint, was that Zhang was acting as Shi’s manager.

“Sometimes right after sex,” the complaint details, Zhang would force Shi “to work grueling hours and compose work emails over the weekend at the apartment.” And when Shi did make her lack of desire for Zhang known, Zhang “became angry and retaliated against her by unfairly downgrading her performance reviews.” The retaliation continued when Zhang “removed her as lead from projects and promoted others beneath her to supervise her.”

Shi claims that after reporting the harassment to Yahoo’s human resources department, “they refused to conduct a proper investigation, reprimand Zhang, or transfer [Shi] out of her intolerable work environment…” Shi claims Yahoo “retaliated” against her by terminating her, which she says caused her “emotional distress, lost wages, and lost benefits, including stock options.”

Asked whether or not Shi’s allegations were true, a spokesperson for Yahoo, Sarah Meron, told The Daily Beast, “No, that’s false. As soon as the company was made aware of Ms. Shi’s claims we conducted an investigation of the matter, and found absolutely no evidence in support of the allegations against Maria Zhang.” 

Zhang, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast, has both written and spoken about her support for female engineers.

In an opinion piece for women2.com she argued that co-ed work environments are good for companies, noting that “women interact very differently from men in a work environment; it’s why gender neutrality can cause such drastic changes…As a result of these different mindsets [between the sexes], women are found to greatly improve the sense of community in an office, resulting in greater efficiency and dedication among employees.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Zhang advised women engineers to “leverage your strengths and be confident in what you do, rather than focusing on your weaknesses.” Zhang said the biggest challenge for women in the workplace was the perception that “women don’t fit engineering roles.”

“Sometimes right after sex,” the complaint details, Zhang would force Shi “to work grueling hours and compose work emails over the weekend at the apartment.”

Zhang said she wished women would embrace their femininity in the workplace: “When I noticed that many women in the engineering field would dress very similar to their male peers in Silicon Valley—jeans, t-shirts, sneakers—while at work. But when I would see them in a social setting, they were wearing more feminine clothing like dresses and high heels. I truly feel that women just need to be themselves in the workplace. Stand out. Don’t try to fit into this male-dominated mold, but rather wear a skirt to work if you like wearing skirts. Celebrate who you are as an engineer and a woman.”

According to her personal blog, “Irrationally Optimistic,” Zhang is a mother of two, living in a “double professional household.”

Zhang’s alleged behavior is not exactly unheard of in Silicon Valley. Earlier this year, programming network GitHub came under fire when a female designer publicly alleged that she had been subject to sexism and intimidation while working for the company.

Tech PR firm OpenCommunications was hit with claims that its CEO made unwelcome advances toward a subordinate.

And just this month, a former executive at Tinder filed a lawsuit against the start-up and its parent company* for sexual harassment and discrimination.

It’s long been assumed that women need to watch out for predatory men in the tech world. But the allegations against Zhang mean that they may not even be safe from one another.

*Tinder’s parent company, IAC, also owns The Daily Beast.