Yahoo denies allegations of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley

Last year, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer ranked eighth on Fortune Magazine’s list of America’s most powerful businesswomen. This year, women at Yahoo are once again in the spotlight, but for a very different reason.

Maria Zhang, Yahoo’s Senior Director of Engineering, is being sued for sexual harassment by Nan Shi, a principal software engineer at Yahoo. Yahoo is also named as a defendant. The lawsuit was filed on Friday and alleges sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful termination.

Shi alleges that Zhang promised “a bright future at Yahoo” if Shi complied with Zhang’s sexual demands.

Zhang and Shi previously worked together in Seattle at Alike, Zhang’s mobile-app startup, prior to Yahoo purchasing the startup in 2013. Both Zhang and Shi then moved to Sunnyvale, Calif. where they lived in temporary Yahoo housing. Shi alleges that Zhang coerced her multiple times into digital and oral sex against her will despite Shi telling Zhang that she was not interested in sex with her.

Shi’s lawsuit alleges that the price of rejecting Zhang’s advances was high, that Zhang said “She could take away everything from her including her job, stocks, and future.”

When Shi began resisting Zhang, Shi alleges that she received a poor performance review, was removed from the position of project lead in her department and that others below Shi were promoted to supervise her. According to the court filing, Shi reported the issues to Yahoo, but the company did nothing. Shi was placed on unpaid leave and fully terminated on Friday, July 11th, 2014.

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Shi was distraught as she described a forced sexual 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.”

The assaults were not reported to Yahoo when they happened nor to the police because, according to Shi, she worried about the impact of reporting it on her career. However, she did report it last spring to Yahoo’s human resources department.

In addition to the sexual harassment claims, Shi also alleges that she was forced by Zhang to work “grueling hours and compose work emails over the weekend at the apartment, sometimes right after sex.”

Yahoo disputes Shi’s claims and in a statement said “There is absolutely no basis or truth to the allegations against Maria Zhang. Maria is an exemplary Yahoo executive, and we intend to fight vigorously to clear her name.”

Shi is represented by attorney Matthew Fisher. The lawsuit seeks more than $25,000 in damages.

Shelley Nash

Shelley Nash

Originally from Oregon, but now making her home in Houston, Texas, Shelley holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a law degree. She works as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital and enjoys writing about mental health and legal issues. In her spare time she travels extensively, particularly enjoying scuba diving in the waters of Mexico.