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One Engineer's Fight for Truth

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 18/02/2016 Maria Zhang
MARIA ZHANG © Alexei Pineda MARIA ZHANG

July 11, 2014 was a warm and sunny Friday afternoon. I remember being happy with the progress my team had made shipping a new version of the Yahoo News mobile app and looking forward to a weekend with my family when, suddenly, everything changed. That sunny afternoon, I went from a below-the-radar engineer to the subject of a fast-spreading salacious headline: "Female executive sued for sexual harassment." I had been falsely accused, and it was surreal. Not only were the accusations completely fabricated, harassment of any kind is completely at odds with my principles and beliefs as a human being. It quickly took over my life.
Personally, I was humiliated. News of the false, salacious accusations caused an immediate avalanche of stories and reactions. Photos of me were dug up and spread all over the Internet. Innocent things I'd said were twisted to tarnish my reputation. A comment I'd made to the Huffington Post a year prior, with nothing but good intentions to encourage other female engineers to feel free to be themselves and wear what they wanted, was taken out of context across the internet, implying I meant something lurid: "Accused Sexual Harasser Asked Women to Wear More Skirts at Work."
Professionally, my hard-earned reputation of being highly ethical and professional were under attack. Forevermore, my name will be associated with this horrific lie whenever someone does a background search on me.
I was devastated. Not just by the sudden and extremely public degradation, but by the sheer unfairness of it. I was stunned by the relentlessness with which a lie can seem to overcome the truth, so long as it is outrageous and salacious enough to garner attention.
Throughout that first weekend, the lies continued to permeate across the internet, inevitably seen by strangers, colleagues, friends and family. Unable to sleep, I would lay awake thinking about how I was raised by my mother, a lifelong professor, who taught me to be independent, passionate, dedicated, and above all, to love the truth. She taught me that results, impact and integrity mattered most. I've followed those lessons my entire life, including my career as an engineer, where my personal truth that inspires me every day is my belief that software can change the world.
That weekend was the lowest point of my life, but I knew the decision I faced next would be more than devastating; it would be existential.
I needed to decide what to do next.
The legal system gave me the option to settle. It would be the path of least resistance, the easy way out. As it was explained to me, settling meant I wouldn't acknowledge any guilt, some money would exchange hands, and then the horrific lie would be forgotten, eventually. Could I settle in good conscience? How do I uphold my most fundamental belief that truth is what matters most? How do I function as a manager and leader of a team knowing that holding someone accountable for their performance could result in such a malicious personal attack?
By that Monday, I decided I wouldn't be defeated by the attacks of a lie, I wouldn't be changed by a lie, no matter how horrific or public it was.
I decided to fight for what I've always believed in: the truth.
I am deeply appreciative of all the support from Yahoo, my managers, colleagues and their decision to stand by me. Throughout the 18 most grueling, difficult months of my life, it was their support that allowed me to find the strength to continue to stay focused on my work, on my family, and pursue my passion to build great software.
Eighteen trying months later, it all finally came to an end. On an unusually cold California winter day, I got a call from the attorney representing Yahoo and myself in this case. (By this time, she has become one of my best friends.) She told me it was over, that the woman who had accused me dropped all her claims, against both Yahoo and me. We didn't pay her or her legal team anything. I was fully vindicated. The first thing I felt at that moment, surprisingly, was disbelief. After a year and a half of depositions, discoveries, motions, interrogatories, I was resolved to go to trial, to fight this to the end until the truth prevailed. I couldn't believe what I was hearing: the truth finally prevailed. I'm walking away from the experience with my name cleared and a clear conscience. I thought a sense of freedom, relief and eagerness to store it all away forever would come over me. What I actually felt was a stronger and deeper level of conviction in believing the truth and an overwhelming sense of gratitude of the unconditional support I've received throughout the entire ordeal.
And now, finally, I'm able to tell my side of the story.
This part of my story is simply about a lie. A horrific lie, and the tremendous hurt it caused me. It wasn't to correct a wrongdoing, since neither Yahoo nor I ever wronged her. The reasons for creating such horrific and outrageous lies will always be beyond my understanding and comprehension. Separate from this lawsuit, I'm always concerned about how false accusations impact the ability of true victims of sexual harassment to be heard.
Because of this lie, my life will never be the same. I don't know if the damage will ever go away. But I do know that I have grown, gained new perspective, and a deeper understanding of the lessons my mom instilled in me as a young girl: to believe in the power of truth and staying true to yourself.
But I've also learned that this experience is not my whole story. Now that this is over, I don't want to be a crusader driving some social agenda, or remain a victim of false accusation. I look forward to going back to the journey I started when I unboxed my first computer, to building great software with the power to help people be more productive, entertain them, guide them to useful information, and connect them to other people and ideas everywhere. Back to the woman whose mother taught her a long time ago to love the truth -- and to fight for it.

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