Tech + Health

07.17.14

Female Yahoo Exec Accused of Sex Abuse Fires Back

Maria Zhang was sued by a female subordinate who claimed she was forced to have sex with her to keep her job. Now the software giant is backing its manager in her case vs. her accuser.

It’s a she-said she-said of Silicon Valley. In a case unusual in both the male-heavy tech world and sexual-assault cases in general, a Yahoo executive has been accused of forcing a female subordinate to have sex with her under threat of dismissal. On Wednesday, the senior staffer fired back with a lawsuit of her own, saying her accuser is motivated by greed and charging her with defamation.

The dueling lawsuits are the latest among a number of highly publicized sex-abuse cases in the heart of high tech, hitting executives of companies like Tinder, GitHub, and Urban Airship. But while those allegations were directed at powerful men, the Yahoo case provides a rare gender switch-up, and perhaps a chance to shed light on the fact that, no matter the outcome of this particular case, female-perpetrated sexual abuse is an often underreported issue. And it’s taking place within the confines of a company led by Marisa Meyer, one of the highest profile female tech CEOs.

According to Shi’s original suit, filed July 8, Maria Zhang, 41, a senior director of engineering at Yahoo, allegedly “instructed” software engineer Nan Shi to let her crash in Shi’s temporary company housing unit in Sunnyvale, California, in early 2013. They had both recently been hired by the company, which purchased a mobile-app startup called Alike, which was created by Zhang. Shi was one of five employees of Alike and worked there for a year and two months, according to her LinkedIn account, and then moved with the company from Seattle to Yahoo headquarters.

Shi and Zhang had both previously worked at Microsoft, and each emigrated to the U.S. from China. Zhang arrived in the U.S. in 1995 as a student of Tsinghua University, a prestigious Chinese engineering school.

While staying at the company apartment, Zhang began forcing her to perform “oral and digital sex” under threat of losing her job, Shi’s lawsuit says. According to the complaint filing in Santa Clara Superior Court, Shi says she was made “to work grueling hours and compose work emails over the weekend at the apartment, sometimes right after sex” under threats. Both Zhang and Shi’s lawyers declined to comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

“Zhang told Plaintiff she would have a bright future at Yahoo if she had sex with her. She also stated she could take away everything from her, including her job, stocks, and future, if she did not do what she wanted,” according to Shi’s lawsuit.

Zhang’s suit claims Shi benefited from the harassment charges, warding off her termination by being placed on paid leave.

After rejecting Zhang’s advances, Shi claims she was unfairly downgraded in her performance review and then removed from leading projects and delegated to lesser roles, according to the court documents.

In her counter-claim, Zhang says Shi was underperforming and had been constantly given negative feedback from numerous supervisors. Realizing she was at risk of losing her job, Shi made a last-ditch effort to halt the process, Zhang’s lawsuit says. “Shi made the entire story up in an attempt to save her job and avoid losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in uninvested Yahoo stock,” the countersuit alleges. It offers as evidence that Yahoo’s internal investigation found no evidence to support her claims, neither online or tangible.

Shi didn’t immediately report the abuse, but notified the human resources department at Yahoo in the spring. Zhang’s countersuit claims that Yahoo’s investigation found no evidence of sexual abuse: No physical evidence, witnesses, digital trail, or photographs. Zhang’s suit claims Shi benefited from the harassment charges, warding off her termination by being placed on paid leave.

On July 8, a summons was sent to Zhang alerting her to the lawsuit, and on July 11, Nan Shi lost her job.

Now both sides are gearing up for a court battle and claiming damages from the others’ actions. Shi says she “has suffered emotional distress, lost wages, and lost benefits, including stock options.” Zhang claims “injury to her professional reputation” and “severe emotional distress” that are of an amount “not yet precisely attainable.” The senior executive is demanding a trial by jury and seeking unlimited damages.

Yahoo is standing by Zhang. The company released a statement calling Shi’s suit baseless and saying Zhang “is an exemplary Yahoo executive and we intend to fight vigorously to clear her name.”

The outcome of the Zhang-Shi showdown may have many months until a resolution, but meanwhile, debates about the tech industry’s complacency in sexual-assault cases will continue to rage. Thrown into that mix is a push for women’s involvement in the male-centric field, despite an environment steeped in increasingly ugly lawsuits.

Incidentally, in a 2012 op-ed, Zhang lamented the lack of women in engineering, writing that: “As a result of decades of this gender bias, nearly every possible STEM-related profession (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), contains gender ratios which reflect blatant male dominance.”