The assumpution behind that question is that women could not be a developer.
To give racist equivalents, it's as if in the USA, imagine you came into the room and there was a latino man there "Are you the new cleaner?"; or in UK, imagine one was introduced to a new eastern european member of staff, "Are you the new cleaner?". These questions are motivated by racist assumptions, and this OP's examples are motivated by sexist assumption.
For better or worse it's just a fact that at the moment a girl working in a software shop is more likely to be a graphic designer than a coder. If I was in a rush looking for the new freelance designer one morning and walked up to an unfamiliar girl sat at a Mac Pro and asked her "Are you the new designer", I'm not being sexist, I'm just making an assumption based on the data I have. Designers and coders, whether male or female, both look the same: they're likely to be intelligent, smart and trendy looking and sat at a workstation.
Now, if in a similar situation I walked up to an intelligent, smart and trendy looking Indian freelancer sat at a MacBook and asked "Are you the new cleaner?", then that's totally different and inexcusable. I had enough data there not to make any assumptions, and it would betray racist core beliefs.
See the difference? Of course every situation is different, but I think the OP's example in this case was weak. We don't need everyone walking around on egg shells, paranoid that people are judging their every stated assumption against some kind of uber harsh politically correct scale.
Yes, it is accurate to say that "statistically a new female hire in an IT shop is likely to be a designer, not a coder". It is factually accurate to say that, but is it right and moral and nice to say it?
Words can affect people, and set tone and expectations. Is it right for all us men to presume, unless shown otherwise, that the new female hire is not a coder? Will this help or hurt our industry? Every little teeny thing (like presuming this (which is a teeny thing)) can be detrimental and can build up. "Death by a thousand cuts", "Straw that broke the camel's back", our society recognises that sometimes lots of little things can be Too Much™ sometimes.
Would software/the company/society be a better place if we didn't vocalise these presumptions about women, especially if it reinforces negative stereotypes about them?
After all, we all know the mistakes that can come when a female starts getting bigger and we ask "Are you pregnant?". Manners say to be careful here, let's apply some manners, rather than fetishising statically accurate deductions, to presuming women aren't coders.
There's an old saying which appears to have been lost somewhere along the way:
"Offense can only be taken"
Live by it and you will never be offended. It is not the job of everybody around you to constantly walk on eggshells just to keep you happy. You are not at the center of the universe, after all.
I agree that there is a middle ground - when someone's quality of life is seriously suffering because, for example, someone is shouting abuse at them all day then something must be done. However, taking serious offence at people's ignorant opinions or ways of expression is unwise and in itself ignorant.
I'm anticipating prejudice so I shall address it pre-emptively - I am, in fact, a minority. In many places on this planet, I risk serious injury just for being what I am. People have expressed extremely ignorant opinions about the group I fall under in workplaces. I initially took offence upon hearing what I heard but then I moved past that stage and accepted that one cannot understand something they haven't dealt with directly. They were not trying to be mean, they merely did not understand because of their limited experience. How can I take offence when this is the case?
That's certainly a good sign that social sanctions for sexism, racism, etc work. People ~should~ think before they speak, much more than they do in most sites and blogs.
Suppose through a sequence of unfortunate events you find yourself needing to walk through a bad section of town. You have your choice of two roads. Down one road you see a group of 5 young men of a race that commits crimes significantly higher than average. Down the other road there's a group of 5 middle-aged women of a race that commits crimes less than average. Is it acceptable to be racist, sexist, and ageist in this scenario?
Asking a new employee from an 'ethnic minority' if he or she is the new cleaner is bad because being a cleaner is not perceived to be a 'good' job.
Asking a new female employee if she's a designer isn't so bad because, as far as I can tell, being a designer is no 'worse' than being a programmer.
Both examples could be considered something-ism, but I'd say the former is worth caring about, and the latter is a case of oversensitivity (potentially from both sides).
I generally try to err on the side of caution to keep from offending people, but I'm quite allergic to people that get offended too quickly.
(A special place in hell is reserved for people who get offended on behalf of other people.)
1) Actually, I think you want to be a lot more careful about labelling people as "must be X" because of their gender than about labelling them as "made a sexist comment" because they maybe made a sexist comment. It is actually still worse to be a victim of sexism than to be called a sexist.
2) Having core sexist beliefs isn't a prerequisite for making a sexist comment. You can have a momentary sexist thought without consciously believing that women are inferior to men or anything like that - in fact, momentary sexist thoughts are almost inevitable if you're in a culture where sexism is pervasive, no matter who you are. Moreover, a comment can be sexist even if it is made with completely innocent intentions, if it predictably has the effect of (re)enforcing hierarchical gender roles. Sexism is not an ideology, it's a social structure.
You can do "s/sexism/racism/g" for all of the above as well.
Having core sexist beliefs isn't a prerequisite for making a sexist comment.
Exactly, many people think "I'm not a sexist" and then say lots of things, presuming then that everything they say cannot be sexist. I take care to say "sexist talk/action". Tends to get people's backs up less.
You can do "s/sexism/racism/g" for all of the above as well.
Exactly. I've made this same post several times, only doing a bare minimum of s/race/sex/g
The only person I would suggest being a cleaner, is one with a white apron, a big logo, with large visible name tag, and carrying a mop. That assumption is based on clothing standards at fast food stores, and its still a rather crude assumption.
Ceteris paribus: without Blender or a mop, and without knowing anything about new hires, the assumption is that the new girl is a designer.
It's prejudice precisely because you don't have any other information.
Is it really a negative stereotype that women and men are equally capable but that a woman is more likely to be interested in an equally respectable artistic career over a technical one?
It seems that people on HN hold this developer superiority belief so strongly that if someone asks "are you a designer?" they think that is actually an offensive statement. How dare you think I am a plebe designer and not a developer god that I am?
I don't mean criticizing anyone in particular in this thread, I just suddenly realize that this has often been the case in my personal behavior and in that of people around me.
In this case, there are other cues that a person can use.
e.g. if the person's wearing a cleaners' uniform, it's not racist to ask them that. If they are wearing a suit, it's at a minimum socially clueless, and at worst bigoted to ask them that.
Are we really that far gone, and if so, how are we ever going to get work to become a gender neutral environment? Assuming bad faith is not a road to take.
But we do not have that kind of context. We only have a assumed intention on what the person meant by it. If we do such assumptions, we assume bad faith.
It could be that they hired a new web developer, also called web designers by many, or designers as short. If a back-end or sysadmin meet someone who is working on the front end, or even on a API structure, its fully plausible to call them "designers", be them male, female, or alien.
Simply put, the comment without any additional context to vilify the speaker, is not sexism. With some context, it might be, but in many others, it is not. Assuming good faith is to default at those context that do not mean sexism.
I.e., suppose a new girl shows up at your office. Someone is offering even money that she is a developer. Do you take the bet?
(tl;dr: It's almost certainly an accurate deduction, but acting on it might make society/culture/company worse off, so let's not do it)